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'Sharper than a serpent's tooth'

November 17, 2005

Williams Shakespeare's play, "King Lear," is about an elderly ruler who tries to divide his kingdom among his children, with bad results.

Two daughters who should have been grateful are revealed as connivers who repay their father's gift by denying him a place of honor in their homes.

At one point, the king, angry and sad, cries out, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, To have a thankless child!"

We thought of the play and that line while reading the story of Phillip Mark Shafer, convicted this week in Washington County Circuit Court of felony theft in connection with the depletion of the bank account of his 92-year-old grandmother, Harriet Shafer.

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According to Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III, the defendant wrote numerous checks from her account to cash, failed to make mortgage payments on her house and made other suspicious withdrawals.

The defendant's sister, Deborah Shultz, said that her grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, had worked hard all her life and had taken care of her brother, who returned her kindness by swindling her.

"In return for all she did, Mark bilked her ..., " Shultz said, adding, "He left her penniless without a roof over her head."

For his crime, Shafer was sentenced to 15 years in state prison, the maximum term for felony theft. If he serves the maximum, he would be 58 when released.

There was a time when the threat of losing the good opinion of one's family, friends and the general public would have deterred most from commiting such a crime. Stealing from a stranger would still have been a disgrace, but to steal from one's own aged grandmother seems cowardly as well as dishonest, because the victim was so vulnerable.

In Shakespeare's play, Lear comes to a bad end, dying from grief at the loss of the one daughter who loved and honored him.

Harriet Shafer is faring better, living in a nursing home near Harrisburg, Pa. Her grandson may outlive her, but we hope the memory of what he has done will remain with him and inspire him to try to atone for what he did after his release.

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