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James Oscar 'OZ' Brooks

If police ever catch James “OZ” Brooks, he’ll be in his 60s, at least, when he is released from prison.

The 39-year-old Brooks, kingpin of a Detroit drug ring that established roots in New Castle, was sentenced in absentia yesterday to 22 1/2 to 45 years in a state prison.

Common Pleas Judge Thomas Piccione also ordered Brooks to pay $170,000 in fines. He noted he imposed the minimum fines for each offense, because, considering Brooks’ age when he gets out of prison, he would be unable to pay back the maximum amounts.

Meanwhile, Brooks, who did not show for his trial and was found guilty in absentia by a jury on Halloween, is considered a fugitive.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Michael Ahwesh, the chief prosecutor in the case, said Brooks is wanted on a bench warrant and authorities have been looking for him since his trial.

“We’ve been in touch with the U.S. Marshals,” Ahwesh said.

Meanwhile, Ahwesh said he is “extremely happy” with the sentence imposed by Piccione.

Ahwesh had told the court that Brooks was the most culpable of all of the 27 people arrested in Operation Detroit last year, adding that “a substantial sentence would be appropriate.”

Brooks’ attorney, Philip Berezniak of Ellwood City, told the judge he has not spoken with Brooks since before his trial in October when they met to discuss trial strategies.

Looking at the empty chair next to him, he said, “This is not a typical sentencing for me.”

His role as an attorney at the proceeding was limited to confirming that the sentencing recommended by Ahwesh was in conformity with the state guidelines.

“Under most sentencing situations, I’d have Mr. Brooks present and have you look at him personally,” Berezniak said. “I don’t have that opportunity today and I’m not going to take up the court’s time.”

Brooks, a Detroit native, was found guilty of all 18 drug-related charges against him — two counts of corrupt organizations, five counts each of possession of cocaine, possession with intent to deliver cocaine and delivery of cocaine, and one count of criminal conspiracy.

He had been released from jail on a nominal bond the month before his trial, and did not show up for his trial that started Oct. 23. Piccione decided to try him in his absence.

Brooks was among those arrested by New Castle police and the state attorney general’s office a year ago in a sweep, following a probe investigators had dubbed Operation Detroit.

The alleged cocaine business generated more than $2 million in illegal crack sales in Lawrence County each year from 2003 to 2006.

During Brooks’ trial, Ahwesh wove testimony into a description of how Brooks was the boss of the illegal business that moved to New Castle from Detroit and used low-, mid- and upper-level dealers to sell crack cocaine and used juveniles as couriers.

Ahwesh said one or two more trials in the case are to be scheduled for next month, and at least four of the offenders are scheduled for sentencings in April.

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