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 Smith when he felt the man was working too slowly or had done something wrong on the job.
In one instance, when Smith failed to bring chicken to the buffet by a certain time, Edwards "dipped metal tongs into hot grease and then placed them against [Smith's] neck, resulting in a burn that was treated immediately by other employees," according to records. On other occasions, Edwards whipped him with a belt, punched him and assaulted Smith with pots and pans, leaving him and other employees too terrified to come forward.
In a federal lawsuit filed on his behalf by civil attorneys in late 2015, Smith compared Edwards to a slave driver. He said his manager would call him racial slurs, and threatened to "stomp" his throat and beat him "until people would not recognize him."
"Plaintiff was heard crying like a child and yelling, 'No, Bobby, please!' After this beating, Defendant Bobby forced Plaintiff to get back to work," the complaint read.
Smith worked grueling, 17-hour days under Edwards' watch, according to court documents. The only reprieve came on Sundays, when he was still forced to work from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. The lawsuit alleged Smith lived in a roach-infested apartment behind the restaurant that was owned by Edwards. Smith's attorneys described the conditions as "harmful to human health."
All the while, Edwards did not pay Smith but told him "he was maintaining a bank account" in his name, prosecutors said. The bank account did not actually exist.
He was finally removed from the situation when someone notified authorities. Social workers found Smith with scars on his back and immediately placed him in the custody of Adult Protective Services.
A message to Edwards' attorney's office was not returned late Thursday. In a statement, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said the case was hard to fathom.
"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," Dreiband wrote. "The Department of Justice will continue to investigate, prosecute, and convict human traffickers involved in forced labor, seeking justice on behalf of their victims."