John Christopher Smith initially liked working at J & J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, where he was hired at 12 years old.
For about two decades, Smith washed dishes, bused tables and cooked food at the small-town diner without issue. That all changed around 2009, authorities say, when Bobby Paul Edwards took over as daily manager and enslaved Smith at the restaurant for five years.
By means of physical violence, threats and intimidation, Edwards coerced Smith into working more than 100 hours per week without pay.
The abuse and threats were so severe that Smith, who is black and has a mental disability, was too afraid to speak up or go to authorities. He was freed when someone notified police in 2014, and in an interview with an NBC affiliate the following year, Smith said he wanted to see Edwards go to prison.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Edwards, 54, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on one count of forced labor, a charge he pleaded guilty to last year. Edwards was also ordered to pay Smith nearly $300,000 in restitution in a case federal authorities have likened to “abusive enslavement.”
“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” Sherri Lydon, U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, said in a statement. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will not tolerate forced or exploitative labor in South Carolina, and we are grateful to the watchful citizen and our partners in law enforcement who put a stop to this particularly cruel violence.”
Edwards became the daily manager of J & J Cafeteria in 2008, according to court documents. The following year, he stopped paying Smith and moved him into an apartment attached to the restaurant. Between September 2009 and October 2014, Edwards physically abused and threatened…