Federal authorities have filed a civil rights charge against a white restaurant manager accused by a developmentally disabled black worker of enslaving and abusing him over a five-year-period at his South Carolina eatery, PEOPLE confirms.
The single count of “forced labor,” announced Wednesday against Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, of Conway, South Carolina, alleges Edwards deployed “force, threats of force, physical restraint and coercion” against buffet cook John Christopher Smith at the J&J Cafeteria in Conway from 2009 to 2014.
Edwards pleaded not guilty during a court hearing and was ordered held without bond, reports The Post and Courier of Charleston.
Edwards’ attorney, Scott Bellamy, did not immediately return a call from PEOPLE. “We deny any allegations of slavery and abuse,” Bellamy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The succinct federal indictment, which does not elaborate on Edwards’ alleged mistreatment of Smith, labels the charge as an “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking.”
Bellamy told the paper, “We don’t believe there was any slavery involved.” He added, “That word — in the climate we’re in in this country, quite frankly — makes it even more of a story.”
A statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that between September 2009 and October 2014, Edwards used various methods “to compel the victim, who has an intellectual disability, to work as the buffet cook of J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina.” Edwards at the time managed the restaurant, which was owned by his brother.
A pending federal lawsuit filed on Smith’s behalf in 2015 went further, alleging that Smith, 39, had worked at the restaurant without incident for more than two decades busing tables, washing dishes and cooking before Edwards took over as manager, reports The Washington Post.
Smith alleges in the 2015 lawsuit that Edwards addressed him using racial slurs and threatened to beat him “until people would not recognize him,” while working Smith seven days a week, for 18-hour days, without benefits or vacation time and little or no pay.
“He would beat me with belts and all that,” Smith, who was diagnosed with mild delayed cognitive development and had worked at the restaurant since he was 12, told WMBF-TV in 2015. “Take the tongs to the grease on my neck.”
An advocate for Smith, Genuine Caines, eventually reported the alleged mistreatment. “It’s total abuse,” Caines told the TV station.
In 2014 Edwards was arrested and charged with second-degree assault of Smith, in a case that also is still pending.
The restaurant manager allegedly told Smith that his earnings were going into a bank account that held more than $30,000, but Smith said in his 2015 complaint that he received none of it.
Meanwhile Smith lived in a roach-infested apartment owned by Edwards behind the restaurant in conditions that Smith’s attorneys described in the complaint as “sub-human” and “deplorable.”
The 2015 complaint that named the restaurant, Edwards, and Edwards’ brother, Ernest J. Edwards, accused them of slavery, discrimination and labor violations, all of which the brothers denied. Last year Smith’s attorneys removed Bobby Paul Edwards as a defendant from that lawsuit, but his brother and the restaurant remain.
The new federal charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and mandatory restitution to the alleged victim, according to a document unsealed in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.