FLORENCE — Standing a few feet from the man who enslaved him, Chris Smith told his story.
It was about how Bobby Paul Edwards whipped him with belts when Smith was a cook at the J & J Cafeteria in Conway; how Edwards forced him to work 100-hour weeks for no pay; how Edwards beat him with his fists and burned him with tongs dripping with hot grease; how Edwards refused to let Smith visit his mother.
That abuse was described in Smith’s prepared statement, which was read in a federal courtroom Wednesday afternoon. Then the 41-year-old intellectually disabled black man spoke to the court about the white man who spent years hurling racist slurs at him.
“I do forgive him for what he done,” Smith said. “But I do want to see him locked up.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Judge Bryan Harwell sentenced Edwards to 10 years in prison. The former J & J manager was also ordered to pay Smith just under $273,000 in restitution.
“The seriousness of this offense and Mr. Edwards’ conduct, the egregiousness of it, can’t be overstated,” Harwell said. “Exploiting people like Mr. Smith, who are vulnerable, and doing it for profit, has no place in any civilized society.”
The sentencing followed Edwards’ guilty plea last year to a forced labor violation. The full charge is an “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or human trafficking” according to court records. Edwards could have received up to 20 years in prison.
During Wednesday’s sentencing, the prosecution explained that Smith started working at the J & J when he was about 10 years old. Most of his family members had jobs there as well and they were happy until Edwards began managing the restaurant in the late 2000s.
Smith stopped receiving pay and the abuse began. At one point, Smith said Edwards took him to his home and showed the cook his vehicles and pool, bragging that he bought those things with the money he withheld from Smith.
When he wasn't working, Smith, who has an IQ below 70, was kept in a roach-infested apartment behind the restaurant. Edwards owned the apartment.
Smith described feeling like he was in prison, praying daily that God would help him escape. He said he didn’t leave because he worried about Edwards hurting him or his family.
Smith lived in those conditions until October 2014 when Conway police responded to the restaurant after the Department of Social Services received a concerned citizen’s report from the Governor’s Office about a vulnerable adult being abused at J & J. Social workers saw scars on Smith’s back from the abuse.
Edwards was arrested on a second-degree assault and battery charge in November 2014 as a result of an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, but that charge was later dropped.
In November 2015, two Charleston law firms filed a federal civil lawsuit on Smith’s behalf against Edwards, his brother and the restaurant’s registered corporation, Half Moon Foods Inc. Edwards was eventually dropped as an individual defendant from the civil lawsuit, but that case is still pending.
After the civil suit was filed, the FBI and the Department of Justice started looking into the case. Edwards was arrested on Oct. 10, 2017, in connection with a federal indictment.
Wearing an orange jumpsuit, the 54-year-old Edwards apologized to Smith and his family in court Wednesday.
“I let a lot of people down,” he said.
Edwards said he had changed since his arrest, though he offered no explanation about why he hurt Smith.
“I don’t know who he was,” he said, referring to himself.
When he explained his reason for Edwards' sentence, Harwell repeatedly used the words “deplorable” and “disturbing” to describe the case.
“This is an appropriate punishment,” he said.
After the judge made his decision, Edwards’ attorney Robert Lee said his client won’t appeal the sentence.
“There’s no way of explaining his conduct,” he said.
As for Smith, he said Edwards’ abuse still haunts him, but he’s trying to move forward with his life. He has a job cleaning fish at a market and he said his faith continues to help him heal.
But he was disappointed in the 10-year sentence. Smith had asked the judge to give his former manager the maximum punishment — 20 years.
“I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s better than nothing,” he said. “A little bit of justice.”