A South Carolina restaurant manager has been accused of enslaving a mentally disabled black man.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, allegedly forced 39-year-old John Christopher Smith to work as a buffet cook at J&J Cafeteria in Conway for over five years using "force, threats of force, physical restraint, and coercion," federal prosecutors said, according to The Washington Post.
Edwards was charged with attempt to establish peonage, slavery, and involuntary servitude or human trafficking. He faces a maximum of 20 years in jail time and $250,000 in fines.
Edwards pleaded not guilty to the charge after he was indicted, according to court records.
Smith had reportedly worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years before Edwards became the manager in 2010. Edwards allegedly forced the man to work late hours every day with little and sometimes no pay, without vacation time or benefits.
During his time working for Edwards, Smith is reported to have lived behind the restaurant in a roach-infested apartment that Edwards owned. Smith's attorneys described the apartment's conditions as "deplorable" and "harmful to human health."
Smith reported being physically hit with a frying pan, butcher knives, belt buckles and fists, burned with tongs covered in hot grease, and "being called the N-word repeatedly," according to the Post and Courier.
"Plaintiff was heard crying like a child and yelling, 'No, Bobby, please!'" read Smith's lawsuit. "After this beating, Defendant Bobby forced Plaintiff to get back to work."
The threats and beatings scared Smith so much, his attorneys said, that he thought coming forward with the allegations would be "fruitless" and potentially lead to worse abuse or death.
Other employees at the restaurant were also reportedly too intimidated to come forward about what was happening.
"Customers that were going in there would hear stuff and they didn't know what was going on," said Geneane Caines, whose daughter-in-law worked at J&J, "and they would ask the waitresses, and the waitresses were so scared of Bobby they wouldn't tell them then what it was."
Caines reported the situation to police in 2014, and social workers came to check on Smith. When they found scars on his back, he was taken into the custody of Adult Protective Services.
Smith reportedly made less than $3,000 each year. If convicted, Edwards would have to pay restitution to Smith in addition to serving jail time.
Edwards was ordered to be held without bail. Scott Bellamy, Edwards' attorney, said that his client had said he was innocent.
"Bobby maintained his innocence three years ago," said Bellamy, referring to the time when the accusations of forced labor first emerged. "The federal government has been looking at this for two years, trying to find something. And he still maintains his innocence."
David Aylor, one of Smith's attorneys, said his client was "very appreciative of the efforts put forth by the U.S. government in its investigation, and he believes that ultimately, justice will be served."
"I want him to go to prison," Smith is reported to have said of Edwards, "and I want to be there when he go."
Sources: The Washington Post, Post and Courier / Featured Image: Antti T. Nissinen/Flickr / Embedded Images: Horry County Sheriff's Department via Post and Courier, Francis Storr/Flickr