A South Carolina business manager who admitted to enslaving a man with intellectual disabilities at a Conway restaurant was sentenced Monday to serve 10 years in prison and repay his victim for years of verbal and physical abuse.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 54, pleaded guilty in 2018 to one federal count of forced labor, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. In addition to his 10-year sentence, Edwards was ordered to pay Christopher Smith $272,952.96 in restitution.
The abuse began in 2009, when Edwards began managing a Conway cafeteria where Smith had been working since he was 12 years old and was paid in cash, according to court records.
Edwards often had Smith work 18-hour shifts with no vacation time or benefits. He also managed the apartment building where Smith lived in "sub-human" conditions with an infestation of cockroaches, according to court documents. Smith wasn't allowed to speak to his family.
To keep Smith from leaving, Edwards would back him into isolated corners of the restaurant and hit him with weapons ranging from a kitchen knife to a frying pan, and once used a pair of tongs dipped in hot grease to burn his neck. Smith, terrified, endured the beatings "while being called the N-word repeatedly," according to his attorneys. Edwards is white, and Smith is black.
"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,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said.
When Smith seemed ready to leave, Edwards would threaten to beat his face beyond recognition or call police and have him arrested. Other times, he physically restrained Smith in the cafeteria and forced him to work until he was too weak to walk or feed himself.
Several witnesses reported that Edwards, upset at the speed of Smith's work, would take Smith to the back of the restaurant and beat him as he cried and begged Smith to stop, according to court documents.
By the time authorities rescued Smith in November 2014, he'd been scarred. They arrested Edwards on a state assault and battery charge, which wasn't prosecuted.
The manager said he maintained a bank account for Smith with more than $30,000 in it but never let him access the funds. Edwards paid Smith less than $3,000 each year, authorities found.
“This abusive enslavement of a vulnerable person is shocking," FBI Special Agent in Charge Jody Norris said. "Human trafficking takes many forms, and we encourage anyone with information related to these crimes to contact the FBI."
In November 2015, attorneys for Smith filed a federal lawsuit against Edwards and the cafeteria, detailing the abuse Smith had suffered. A judge hasn't ruled in that case.