A South Carolina man is accused of holding a mentally disabled man as a slave, psychologically and physically abusing the victim as he was forced into labor at a restaurant, federal officials said.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, is accused of using “force, threats of force, physical restraint and coercion,” as well as other tactics, to compel the disabled victim to work, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The victim was subjected to these conditions for five years beginning in September 2009 at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, just inland of the South Carolina resort town of Myrtle Beach, officials said.
The department news release did not disclose the victim’s identity, but federal prosecutors told the Washington Post he is John Christopher Smith, a black man. He is 39 and has a mild cognitive disability, the newspaper said.
He worked as a buffet cook at the restaurant for more than 20 years when Edwards signed on as manager in 2010. At that point, the job “turned into a nightmare,” according to the Post.
In a separate civil filing obtained by the paper, Smith alleges Edwards would use racial slurs against him, behaved like a slave driver and assaulted him away from customers’ eyes in the eatery’s freezer — among a number of other serious allegations.
Reports about Edwards’ behavior emerged in the past, such as when Smith alleged to South Carolina television station WMBF in 2015 that Edwards had been torturing him for years. Several people on the J&J Cafeteria Yelp page even accuse the business of improper dealings with employees dating back to 2014.
Edwards was arrested Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to forced labor the following day, federal court records show.
He was charged with one count of attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking. If convicted as charged, he could face a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and mandatory restitution, prosecutors said.
Horry County court records show Edwards’ rap sheet is lengthy and includes charges for burglary, assault, resisting arrest and shoplifting.
The FBI is continuing to investigate the case.