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White manager accused of enslaving black worker at Conway restaurant is charged in civil rights case

Black restaurant worker beaten, enslaved for years, Charleston lawyers say (copy)

Bobby Paul Edwards. File/Provided

A white restaurant manager accused of enslaving a black worker for five years at a Conway eatery has been indicted by a federal grand jury.

The U.S. Attorney's Office on Wednesday announced that Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, of Lakeside Drive, faces a charge of forced labor, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison.

Edwards was arrested Tuesday in connection with the indictment. He pleaded not guilty during a hearing Wednesday in Florence and was ordered to be held without bail.

His attorney, Scott Bellamy of Conway, said Edwards was looking forward to his day in court and was confident that the system would work.

"Bobby maintained his innocence three years ago” when the accusations emerged, his lawyer added. “The federal government has been looking at this for two years, trying to find something. And he still maintains his innocence.”

The employee, Christopher Smith, had worked for 23 years at J&J Cafeteria, but the allegations against Edwards surfaced toward the end of his time as a buffet cook. Smith was rescued after state social workers fielded a tip from someone concerned for his safety.

Word of Smith's alleged ordeal emerged publicly in 2015 after his attorneys in Charleston filed a federal lawsuit against Edwards, the business and its owner, Ernest J. Edwards, the suspect's brother.

Bobby Edwards had already been arrested in 2014 on a state charge of second-degree assault and battery, which remains pending, but the FBI and civil rights prosecutors from the Department of Justice also started probing the case.

The federal allegations mirror some of those in the lawsuit.

Prosecutors said Bobby Edwards "used force, threats of force, physical restraint and coercion" to get Smith to work.

Smith, who has an intellectual disability, would pull 18-hour shifts six days a week, sometimes without breaks, his attorneys said in the suit. He was hit with a frying pan, burned with grease-covered tongs and beaten with butcher knives, belt buckles and fists “while being called the N-word repeatedly,” the lawyers alleged.

And he got paid less than $3,000 yearly, they said.

In addition to possible prison time if he's convicted, Bobby Edwards would face paying mandatory restitution to the victim.

The lawsuit remains unresolved.

"Our client is very appreciative of the efforts put forth by the U.S. government in its investigation," David Aylor, an attorney for Smith, said, "and he believes that ultimately, justice will be served."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

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