Edwards yelled at the victim and used racial slurs to belittle and demean a black man
A white South Carolina restaurant manager has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for enslaving a black worker with an intellectual disability for five years, forcing him to work more than 100 hours a week without pay and frequently beating him with a belt, the Justice Department said Thursday.
On one occasion, according to the Department of Justice, Bobby Paul Edwards, the manager of J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, "dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned the victim’s neck" for failing to deliver fried chicken to the buffet quickly.
Edwards "yelled at the victim and used racial slurs to belittle and demean him," the Justice Department said in announcing the sentencing.
In addition to the prison sentence, Edwards was required to pay the worker, John Christopher Smith, more than $500,000 in damages, including $272,000 in the back pay he never received.
Smith's ordeal finally ended in 2014 when the mother-in-law of a waitress notified authorities of the abuse.
“It is almost inconceivable that instances of forced labor endure in this country to this day – a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.
Prosecutors say Smith, who is described as having a "mild cognitive impairment" began working at J&J cafeteria as a dishwasher in 1990 at the age of 12.
Smith, now in his early 40s, eventually dropped out of school and took up a full-time, paid job at the restaurant, which was owned by Edwards' extended family.
That all changed around 2009 when Edwards took over operation of the cafeteria and simply quit paying Smith, who was given a small room at the back of the restaurant.
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For five years, according to court documents, Smith, who eventually became a buffet cook, was required to work more than 100 hours — from 6. a.m. until 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday — without a day off and without pay.
Edwards used "violence, threats of violence, verbal abuse, and threats of taking (Smith) to jail," in order to compel him to keep working at J&J, according to the court documents.
At times, the court said, Edwards would beat Smith with a belt or hit him with kitchen items, such as pans, and punch him with his fists either because he believed the man worked too slowly or had done something wrong on the job.
In a federal lawsuit filed in 2015 on Smith's behalf, he compared Edwards to a slave driver who would yell racial slurs at him.
At one point, the suit charged, Edwards threatened to "stomp" his throat and beat him “until people would not recognize him.”
"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 said.
In 2015, after Edwards' arrest, Smith told WMBF-TV that he had been physically abused for years.
"He would beat me with belts and all that," Smith said. "Take the tongs to the grease on my neck."
Smith said he wanted Edward to go to prison "and I want to be there when he go."