When Joseph Darkoh skipped town to escape federal heroin distribution charges 20 years ago, Brooklyn federal prosecutors said he went on the lam with distinction.
Darkoh fled to Ghana, apparently serving as a village chief, they said.
But the 68-year-old chief will only be in charge of a prison cell for the next two years, after he was sentenced Thursday.
Prosecutors pushed for a sentence of between five and six years — but Judge Carol Bagley Amon noted Darkoh’s age and “what appear to be very serious health conditions.”
In 1997, Darkoh was arrested and arraigned on an indictment that accused him and others of importing heroin through JFK Airport. He fled the country and spent most of the next two decades in Ghana. Darkoh was born in the African nation and had dual citizenship there.
But this July, Darkoh turned himself in to authorities at JFK airport. Shortly after, he pleaded to conspiracy to distribute heroin and failure to appear.
Darkoh and his lawyers said he turned himself in for no other reason than to own up to the crime.
“It was killing me,” Darkoh said Thursday, apologizing to Amon for his actions and begging for leniency. He said the case hung over him and before 2016 he made a couple tries at coming back.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kessler said Darkoh’s talk of finally fessing up “seems at least strained and incomplete.”
The prosecutor said in his experience, fugitives generally did an about face when they were looking for medical treatment or hoping for “reasonably light” consequences.
There was “reason to believe the defendant may have serious medical conditions,” Kessler said.
Early in the sentencing, defense lawyer Michael Brown said a Bureau of Prisons doctor suspected lung cancer for Darkoh. But after hearing Kessler, Brown said his client wasn’t looking for any sort of medical treatment when he surrendered.
Likewise, Darkoh said, “I never knew I was sick.”
Amon said it was unusual for a fugitive to be gone so long and to turn himself in. But she said she had no reason to think he came back other than to face the music on the old case.