A federal grand jury indicted a white restaurant manager for enslaving and abusing a Black man with cognitive deficits yesterday (October 11).
Prosecutors allege that Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, used “force, threats of force, physical restraint and coercion” to make 39-year-old John Christopher Smith work as a buffet cook for little to no pay for five years. The Washington Post reports that Edwards pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking.” If found guilty, he could serve up to 20 years in prison, be fined up to $250,000 and be forced to pay restitution to Smith.
Smith reportedly starting working at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, when he was 12. He kept his job for more than two decades, washing dishes, busing tables and cooking meals. Edwards joined as manager in 2010, and allegedly forced Smith to “work from dawn until late into the night, seven days a week, with little or no pay, no benefits and no vacation time.” The lawsuit Smith filed in 2015 says that Edwards called him racial slurs and regularly threatened his life and assaulted him. From The Post’s report:
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 read.
The combination of threats and actual abuse made Smith so afraid, the lawsuit said, “that he felt coming forward would be fruitless” and bring about “more aggravated abuse or even death.”
All the while, Smith lived in squalor behind the restaurant in a roach-infested apartment owned by Edwards, according to the complaint. Smith’s attorneys described the conditions there as “sub-human,” “deplorable” and “harmful to human health.”
Smith names the restaurant, Edwards and his brother Ernest Edwards—who owns the establishment and allegedly ignored Smith’s reports of the abuse—as defendants. The company reported paying him less than $1,000 per quarter, despite the fact that he was working 18-hour days.
Smith was removed from the restaurant and placed in the care of Adult Protective Services after Geneane Caines, a woman whose daughter-in-law worked there, reported the abuse. “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 local station WMBF in 2015. The Post reports that there is also a state case pending against Edwards; he was charged with misdemeanor second-degree assault after the 2014 removal.
Following the indictment, Smith’s attorney, David Aylor, told The Post and Courier that his client believes justice will be served.