A white man who managed a Conway restaurant has admitted to using violence, threats and intimidation to force a black man with an intellectual disability to work over 100 hours a week without pay.
The U.S. Attorney's Office on Wednesday announced that Bobby Paul Edwards, 53, pleaded guilty to one federal count of forced labor, which carries up to 20 years in prison.
Authorities said years of physical and verbal abuse at J&J Cafeteria began in 2009 when Edwards started managing the restaurant where buffet cook Christopher Smith had worked since he was 12 and was paid in cash.
Prosecutors said Edwards stopped paying Smith, forced him to work seven days a week, and subjected him to racial slurs and threats.
Authorities alleged Edwards assaulted Smith to get him to work faster and to punish him for mistakes. Prosecutors said Edwards beat Smith with a belt, punched him, and hit him with pots and pans. Edwards once dipped metal tongs in hot grease and burned Smith on the neck for not bringing fried chicken to the buffet fast enough.
Smith was not allowed to speak with his relatives by phone or in person at the restaurant, and Edwards threatened to have him arrested if he didn't work.
State social workers caught wind of the abuse in 2014, and authorities at the time arrested Smith on a state charge of assault and battery.
The ordeal emerged publicly the following year when attorneys for Smith filed a federal lawsuit alleging he'd endured years of "slavery." Records show Edwards was later dismissed from the lawsuit, which remains pending against the business and its owner, who is Edwards' brother.
A federal grand jury indicted Edwards last year.
Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a news release said human trafficking through forced labor can happen anywhere: in homes, on farms and, in this case, in restaurants.
“Edwards abused an African-American man with intellectual disabilities by coercing him to work long hours in a restaurant without pay," he said. "Combating human trafficking by forced labor is one of the highest priorities of this Justice Department."
Edwards' sentencing has not yet been scheduled. As part of the plea agreement, he will be required to pay restitution to Smith. The amount will be determined at sentencing.