A white man who forced a black man with an intellectual disability to work at a restaurant more than 100 hours a week without pay while enduring violence and threats will serve 10 years in prison.
Bobby Paul Edwards was sentenced Wednesday after pleading guilty to forced labor, under the chapter of federal law that bans slavery and human trafficking. He was also ordered to pay $272,952.96 to the man, who had worked at the Edwards' family restaurant since he was a 12-year-old boy in 1990.
Reviewing his disability, a forensic psychologist placed his mental age between 7 and 9 years old, prosecutors said in court documents. But he found success at the J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, moving from the part-time dishwasher job he began as a boy to working as a buffet cook.
In 2008, Edwards took over as manager of the restaurant and stopped paying the man. In 2009, Edwards told the man to move into an apartment behind the restaurant, then started requiring him to work seven days a week: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.
All told, he was working about 104 hours a week without pay. Edwards compelled him with violence and threats, while telling the man he was keeping a bank account for him. No account existed.
At times, Edwards whipped the man with his belt and struck him with kitchen pans as well as beating him. On one occasion, the man was slow to deliver fried chicken to the buffet, and Edwards burned his neck with metal tongs dipped in hot grease.
He also threatened the man, used racial slurs, refused to let him speak to his family, and threatened to have him arrested if he stopped working.
The abuse continued until 2014, when the mother-in-law of one of the waitstaff reported what was happening to authorities. When police and social services responded to the restaurant, the man told them "immediately" that he wanted to leave, prosecutors said.
Edwards was arrested in 2017 and last week's sentence comes after a plea agreement in which he admitted his guilt.
“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” US Attorney Sherri A. Lydon 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.”
It was shocking to see this kind of abuse more than 150 years after slavery had ended in the US, a Department of Justice press release said. Today, human trafficking and forced labor can take many forms, FBI Special Agent in Charge Jody Norris added in a statement. Norris encouraged witnesses of abuse to report it to authorities.
“This abusive enslavement of a vulnerable person is shocking," he said. "The FBI is always vigilantly searching for these offenses and stands ready to bring perpetrators to justice and help victims reclaim their lives."