John Christopher Smith was physically abused and forced to work more than 100 hours a week without pay at a South Carolina restaurant, federal officials say.
The manager of the restaurant, Bobby Paul Edwards, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay Smith $272,952.96 in restitution.
Edwards pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor for coercing Smith to work extra hours with no pay. According to the Justice Department, Edwards used violence, threats, and intimidation on Smith while he was employed at the restaurant in Conway.
During his time as restaurant manager between 2009 and 2014, Edwards hurled racial slurs at Smith, beat him with a belt, and hit him with pots and pans, federal officials say.
According to authorities, Edwards would torture Smith by burning his bare neck with hot tongs to make him work faster. Smith, who has intellectual disabilities, was afraid of losing his job.
“It is almost inconceivable that instances of forced labor endure in this country to this day — a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to investigate, prosecute, and convict human traffickers involved in forced labor, seeking justice on behalf of their victims.”
In a 2017 interview with CNN affiliate WPDE, Smith said Edwards physically abused him for years and forced him to live in a room behind the restaurant, keeping him away from his relatives. When Smith’s family came to the restaurant, the manager would force him to stay in the kitchen, he said.
“I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn’t have nobody I could go to,” he told the affiliate. “I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t see none of my family.”
Smith, who is now 40-years-old, said he started busing tables and washing dishes at the restaurant when he was 12, but the incidents started when Edwards took over as manager.
In October 2014, a regular customer of the restaurant noticed the scars on Smith’s body when he was putting food down and called authorities, who removed Smith from the restaurant.
The NAACP office in Conway pushed for tougher charges after a local court accused Edwards of assault, a misdemeanor.
“We are talking about enslavement here,” Abdullah Mustafa, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said at the time.
The organization was instrumental in helping file complaints with the Justice and Labor departments.