A former restaurant manager from Conway, S.C., admitted that he used physical violence, threats and intimidation to compel an intellectually disabled black man to work for more than 100 hours a week for years.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 53, has pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor and faces up to 20 years in prison, according to the Justice Department. He also will have to pay a fine and restitution to the victim.
Court records show the intellectually disabled man, John Christopher Smith, had worked at J&J Cafeteria as a dishwasher since he was 12 — originally working for pay. But when Edwards took over as manager of his family's restaurant, he stopped paying Smith, who according to court documents has an IQ of less than 70.
Smith was forced to work 17-hour days from Monday through Saturday, and 8 hours on Sunday, without pay, Edwards admits.
He forced Smith to move into an apartment behind the restaurant, and used a combination of violence and intimidation to keep him in servitude. According to the plea bargain, Edwards used abusive language and racial slurs. He beat Smith with a belt, or with his fists, or with pots from the kitchen, when he believed Smith was working too slowly or doing something wrong.
Once, when Smith did not bring fried chicken to the buffet as fast as Edwards wanted, Edwards "dipped metal tongs into hot grease and then placed them against [Smith's] neck, resulting in a burn that was treated immediately by other employees," the plea bargain states.
Edwards lied to Smith and told him he was depositing his wages into a bank account that didn't exist, according to the guilty plea. He also says he kept Smith from speaking with his family members and threatened to have him arrested if he did not work.
Smith spoke to ABC15 News in Conway last year.
"I wanted to get out of there a long time ago, but I didn't have nowhere I could go to," Smith told the news station.
He told ABC15 he was forced to live in an apartment behind the family-owned restaurant — less an apartment, really, and more "an office with a bed in it," he said. He says other members of the Edwards family knew about the abuse and didn't do anything.
By all accounts, the abuse lasted for years. The federal investigation focused on Smith's treatment from 2009 to 2014, while Smith told ABC15 he was assaulted and unpaid for 17 years.
Resident Geneane Caines heard about the abuse from a daughter-in-law who was a waitress at the restaurant and visited to see for herself, she told WYFF. She says the scar on Smith's neck was instantly visible.
Caines worked with the local NAACP to bring attention to Smith's situation, and the authorities intervened in 2014.
Edwards was initially charged with a misdemeanor assault. But Abdullah Mustafa, the president of the local NAACP, pushed for greater punishment, including federal involvement. "It should be more than just assault ... we are talking about enslavement here," Mustafa told local news station WMBF.
Edwards' lawyer resisted that characterization, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "We don't believe there was any slavery involved."
Now Edwards has pleaded guilty to one felony count of forced labor, under a law that bans peonage, slavery and human trafficking.
"Edwards' sentencing has not yet been scheduled," the Post and Courier notes. "As part of the plea agreement, he will be required to pay restitution to Smith. The amount will be determined at sentencing."
Meanwhile, the state assault charges were dropped in November 2017, according to county records.
The restaurant and its owner, Bobby Edwards' brother, are also facing a federal civil suit, which has been on hold pending the outcome of Edwards' criminal case.