Feds: Restau­rant man­ager en­slaved black man for years

52-year-old in S.C. ar­rested this week, pleads not guilty.

Dayton Daily News - - NATION - By Derek Hawkins

A white restau­rant man­ager ac­cused of en­slav­ing and abus­ing a men­tally dis­abled black man has been in­dicted by a fed­eral grand jury in South Carolina on a charge of forced la­bor.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors say Bobby Paul Edwards used “force, threats of force, phys­i­cal re­straint, and co­er­cion” to com­pel John Christo­pher Smith to work as a buf­fet cook at J&J Cafe­te­ria in Con­way, South Carolina, for more than five years.

Edwards, 52, was ar­rested this week and pleaded not guilty in open court on Wed­nes­day, shortly af­ter pros­e­cu­tors an­nounced the in­dict­ment, records show.

The full ti­tle of the charge is “at­tempt to es­tab­lish pe­on­age, slav­ery, in­vol­un­tary servi­tude or hu­man trafficking.” It car­ries a max­i­mum sen­tence of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. If con­victed, Edwards will have to pay resti­tu­tion to Smith.

Though the in­dict­ment was un­sealed, it re­mained in­ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic as of Thurs­day morn­ing. But de­tails about Smith’s al­leged en­slave­ment were doc­u­mented in a fed­eral law­suit civil at­tor­neys filed on his be­half in late 2015.

Smith, a 39-year-old with a mild cog­ni­tive dis­abil­ity, had worked for more than two decades with­out is­sue at the J&J Cafe­te­ria, wash­ing dishes, bus­ing tables and later cook­ing food at the folksy small town diner. But when Edwards’ boss took over as man­ager in 2010, Smith said, the job turned into a night­mare, the law­suit said.

Edwards would force Smith to work dawn un­til late into the night, seven days a week, with lit­tle or no pay, no ben­e­fits and no va­ca­tion time, Smith al­leged. Some days he would leave so ex­hausted and weak he had to be car­ried home and “phys­i­cally fed drink and food.”

Smith de­scribed Edwards like a slave driver. He said the man­ager would call him racial slurs, and threaten to “stomp” his throat and beat him “un­til peo­ple would not rec­og­nize him.”

Edwards also as­saulted him reg­u­larly, the law­suit said.

In one in­stance, Smith said, Edwards dipped a pair of tongs into hot fry­ing grease and scalded the back of his neck. On another oc­ca­sion, when Smith didn’t bring food out to the buf­fet fast enough, Edwards took Smith into the back of the restau­rant and whipped him with a belt buckle, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

“Plain­tiff was heard cry­ing like a child and yelling, ‘No, Bobby, please!’ Af­ter this beat­ing, De­fen­dant Bobby forced Plain­tiff to get back to work,” the com­plaint reads.

All the while, Smith lived in squalor be­hind the restau­rant in a roach-in­fested apart­ment owned by Edwards, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

The com­bi­na­tion of threats and ac­tual abuse made Smith so afraid, the law­suit says, “that he felt coming forward would be fruit­less” and bring about “more ag­gra­vated abuse or even death.”

Edwards al­legedly told Smith that he had a bank ac­count with more than $30,000 of his earn­ings, but Smith said he was never paid any of that money or given ac­cess to the ac­count. The restau­rant re­ported that Smith earned less than $1,000 per quar­ter, even though he was reg­u­larly work­ing 18-hour days, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

The law­suit ac­cused Edwards and his brother, Ernest J. Edwards, the owner of the restau­rant, of slav­ery, dis­crim­i­na­tion and la­bor vi­o­la­tions. Both have de­nied wrong­do­ing.

Like Smith, wait­resses at the J&J Cafe­te­ria were re­luc­tant to come forward be­cause they feared Bobby Paul Edwards, ac­cord­ing to Ge­neane Caines, an ad­vo­cate for Smith who said her daugh­ter-in-law worked at the restau­rant.

“Cus­tomers that were go­ing in there would hear stuff and they didn’t know what was go­ing on, and they would ask the wait­resses, and the wait­resses were so scared of Bobby they wouldn’t tell them then what it was,” Caines told WMBF last year.

In Oc­to­ber 2014, Caines re­ported the al­leged abuse of Smith to au­thor­i­ties. When so­cial work­ers checked on Smith, they found scars on his back. He was im­me­di­ately placed in the cus­tody of Adult Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices.

Edwards was ar­rested and charged with sec­ond-de­gree as­sault. That case is pend­ing in state court.

In Fe­bru­ary of last year, at­tor­neys for Smith dis­missed Edwards from the law­suit “with­out prej­u­dice,” in­di­cat­ing that they were con­sid­er­ing amend­ing their com­plaint or seek­ing reme­dies in crim­i­nal court. Edwards’s brother and the restau­rant are still named as de­fen­dants, records show.

In Wed­nes­day’s an­nounce­ment, pros­e­cu­tors al­leged Edwards held Smith cap­tive from Septem­ber 2009 and Oc­to­ber 2014, an even longer pe­riod than Smith’s at­tor­neys out­lined in their law­suit.

“Our client is very ap­pre­cia­tive of the ef­forts put forth by the U.S. gov­ern­ment in its in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” David Ay­lor, an at­tor­ney for Smith, told the Post and Courier Wed­nes­day.

In an in­ter­view with WMBF, Smith said he was 12 years old when he started work­ing at J&J Cafe­te­ria, a squat brick build­ing on a sleepy thor­ough­fare in Con­way that serves South­ern com­fort food and tra­di­tional diner fare. He liked the job un­til Edwards took over, he told the sta­tion.

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