The former manager of a buffet-style restaurant near Myrtle Beach pleaded guilty Monday to abusing and enslaving a mentally challenged Black man for years, forcing him to work over 100 hours a week with no pay.
Paul Bobby Edwards, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor, admitting he’d used violence, threats and intimidation tactics against victim John Christopher Smith, according to the Department of Justice. Smith was employed as a cook at the J&J Cafeteria and had been working there since he was 12 years old.
After becoming manager of the restaurant in 2009, Edwards significantly increased Smith’s duties and subjected the disabled man to “abusive language, racial epithets, threats, [and] acts of violence,” court documents state. The abuse, which raged on while Edwards was in charge from 2009 to 2014, also included whipping Smith with a belt, punching and hitting him with a closed fist and beating him with pots and pans. He would even burn Smith’s bare neck with tongs used in hot grease.
The victim was eventually removed from the restaurant’s premises after complaints about the abuse, the Justice Department said. Smith, now 40, said he used to enjoy his work at the buffet until Edwards started physically abusing him. He said he remained tight-lipped about the abuse for years because he was afraid.
“I want him to go to prison,” Smith told local station WMBF in 2015. “And I want to be there when he go.”
Edwards, whose brother owns the restaurant, was indicted by a grand jury in October 2016 and was subsequently arrested. He pleaded not guilty at the time, however, The New York Times reported.
The serial abuser now faces up to 20 years in prison for his crimes and could be forced pay a maximum $250,000 fine and permanent restitution to his victim.
” … Human trafficking through forced labor can happen on farms, in homes, and as today’s case shows — in public places, such as restaurants,” acting assistant attorney general John Gore said in a statement. “Edwards abused an African-American man with intellectual disabilities by coercing him to work long hours in a restaurant without pay.”
“Combatting human trafficking by forced labor is one of the highest priorities of this Justice Department and today’s guilty plea reflects our commitment to seeking justice on behalf of victims of human trafficking,” Gore added.
A date for Edwards’ formal sentencing hasn’t been set.