Christopher Smith is a victim of modern-day slavery. Christopher Smith began working at J&J Cafeteria as a dishwasher when he was just 12 years old. During the years the restaurant was owned by Jeff Edwards and then Joe Edwards, Christopher was treated well. That all changed when Bobby Edwards’ older brother took ownership and Bobby Edwards began managing the daily operations.
The restaurant underwent renovations, including an “apartment” in the back. Edwards told Christopher to move in, despite the room having no windows, no kitchen, and no washing machine. When Chris moved into the apartment behind J&J, Edwards stopped paying him directly. He claimed he was taking out money for rent and putting the rest into a bank account for Chris. However, no such bank account existed. He only doled out money for Chris to buy hygiene products and snacks like Little Debbie’s to eat when he was not working. Every few weeks, Edwards handed him cash for a haircut.
Christopher, an intellectually disabled man was forced by Bobby Edwards to work at J&J Cafeteria over one hundred hours per week with no pay. Christopher was forced to work, even when he was sick. Chris did not have a cell phone. The restaurant phone, his only means of communication, was controlled by Edwards. When family would visit the restaurant, Edwards would wave them away, saying Christopher was too busy to spend time with them. Edwards threatened that if Chris tried to leave J&J, he would get him arrested for drugs.
Christopher feared daily for his life, as Edwards inflicted whippings, beatings and burns upon him. As the Post & Courier describes it, “For almost six years, Edwards had built an insidious trap of financial power, isolation, and violence that human traffickers often use to control their victims. Sometimes, the scourge festers in the nation’s murky shadows. Other times, right in plain sight.” To fully understand the history and the suffering of Christopher, we encourage you to read the profile written by the Post & Courier.
After a former employee of J&J wrote to then-Governor Nikki Haley’s office, the Governor’s Office of Constituent Services contacted the Horry County DSS and asked that they investigate the reports that a vulnerable adult was being abused by his employer at J&J Cafeteria. After an investigation made it evident that Christopher was being horrifically abused, DSS took Christopher into adult protective services custody.
After an investigation by SLED, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Bobby Edwards. According to the Post & Courier, although the warrant said Edwards had repeatedly beaten and tortured Chris, the man faced only one charge of second-degree assault and battery — a misdemeanor, albeit one with a maximum three-year sentence.
It was unfathomable that someone who brutally abused a vulnerable adult into providing forced labor would receive a maximum three-year sentence.
However, as the Post & Courier describes, it was late 2014, and most South Carolina prosecutors, including the one who brought the assault charge, were unfamiliar with a far more powerful tool at their disposal: the state’s relatively new human trafficking law. A first offense carried a maximum 15-year sentence and a felony record. The statute had gone into effect in December 2012, less than two years earlier, but not a single case had been brought yet with it. Law enforcement and prosecutors had received little to no training about its provisions. So they still turned to the usual hodgepodge of charges — ones like assault.
Edwards was booked into jail. A few hours later, he was released on a $10,000 bond.
Mullins McLeod, of McLeod Law Group, first heard about the case from a fellow attorney who had represented Chris on an unrelated minor charge.
“I could not believe the atrocities Christopher faced and how few consequences Bobby Edwards faced with the assault charge. I knew I had to do more. The law provides tools to right injustices. I knew we needed to find a tool buried in the statues that could provide Christopher justice,” McLeod stated.
McLeod asked Michael Cooper, a then-new attorney at McLeod Law Group, to find that tool. Cooper dove into the statutes and produced an idea. The federal human trafficking statute was amended in 2000, with a new section called “forced labor.” Anyone who obtains labor by threats, force or serious harm could face up to 20 years in prison. Aggravating factors could increase the sentence up to life in prison.
Cooper went to McLeod: This was a human trafficking case.
According to the Post & Courier, “Unlike state authorities, the lawyers threw a spate of allegations at Edwards. In November 2015, they filed a 14-count federal civil lawsuit against Bobby Edwards, his older brother Ernest Edwards and the restaurant’s registered corporation, Half Moon Foods, Inc.
This wasn’t only about an employer assaulting a worker.
It was about a White man terrorizing a Black man, whipping him, beating him, forcing him to work ungodly hours with no pay and no days off.
Count one read “Slavery.””
With that, the story went national.
Four days after < McLeod Law Group> filed the lawsuit, prosecutors forwarded Chris’ case file to the FBI.”
In October 2017, three years almost to the day after Chris was rescued, the federal court unsealed an indictment charging Edwards with one count of forced labor.
This was a felony, carrying a maximum of 20 years in prison.
But the sentencing guidelines, which considered things like Edwards’ lack of major criminal history, called for nine to 11 years. Presiding Judge Harwell came down in the middle at 10.
“Exploiting people like Mr. Smith, who are vulnerable — and doing it for profit — really has no place in any civilized society,” the judge said.
At Edwards’ sentencing, the judge also ordered him to pay Chris $272,952.96 in restitution, based on Chris’ typical 104-hour workweek and the federal minimum wage.
That prompted a new whirl of legal action.
Federal prosecutors appealed, arguing the Fair Labor Standards Act entitled Chris to twice that amount.
In April 2021, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Then, in September 2021, Chris and McLeod Law Group settled the civil case with Edwards’ brother and Half Moon Inc. for $500,000.
Chris’ money went into a trust and can be used only for his benefit, although he doesn’t have access to it yet. He and his lawyers are still wrapping up legal loose ends.
Edwards is now federal inmate number 32836-171. He is 57 years old and housed at a medium-security prison in Maryland.
His release date is set for 2026.
Chris is living with his family, and gainfully employed by Freshwater Fish Co, a family-owned market where Chris is treated with love and respect.