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Conviction Gives Patient’s Family Relief

March 3, 2006

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. (AP) _ The Shanagher household bustled earlier this week with the kind of activity normally associated with a holiday gathering or a church outing. Curling irons were plugged in, doughnuts served, relatives greeted. Extra care was taken to brush the dog fur off everyone’s carefully chosen outfits.

Then John Shanagher handed out small packages of tissues to his sisters, mother and children, preparing them for what the family hoped would be the last court appearance of their lives.

After months of delays, the Shanaghers on Thursday confronted for the first time Charles Cullen, the nurse who murdered their family patriarch and at least 28 other patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Many of the victims’ relatives watched with heartache and anger as Cullen, 46, was sentenced to 11 consecutive life terms in prison.

The wrenching hearing was a long time coming for the Shanaghers, who lost John ``Jack″ Shanagher _ father, husband and grandfather _ in 2003.

``No one knows what to say to someone whose father has been killed by a serial killer. There’s no greeting card for that,″ his son said after the hearing.

Some of the relatives who spoke in court wished aloud the same fate for Cullen that befell his victims. Others called him ``an agent from the deepest depths of hell″ and ``the monster.″ John Shanagher, a teacher who spoke for his kin, instead read from a 4 1/2-page statement that recalled his father’s life and how his death still haunts his family.

Jack Shanagher was 83 when he entered Somerset Medical Center to be treated for a blood clot in his leg. The blood thinners with which he was being treated were working, and his family expected him to be released from the hospital soon.

A World War II veteran who, despite Alzheimer’s disease, had more good days than bad, Jack Shanagher was not letting his hospital stay get him down. The proud Irishman looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as much as Christmas, and his last words to his wife were a reminder to bring corned beef and a beer for the holiday.

He was murdered March 11, less than a week before the festivities, injected with a medication designed to speed up the heart. Cullen pleaded guilty to Shanagher’s murder in April 2004.

``Our dad was so much more than one of your victims,″ John Shanagher, 51, said in court after placing a photograph of his father beside him. ``For the past two years, we have lived a nightmare of your creation. But today, when we walk out of this courtroom, as the sun sets on your 15 minutes of infamy, our nightmare will come to an end.″

The statement took him more than a year to write.

Maureen Barbarise, John Shanagher’s sister, said before the hearing that the Shanaghers wanted to stand in front of Cullen, ``so he knows who he took away from us, what he took away from us.″

But Cullen would not even give the family that satisfaction. As he did for nearly the entire court appearance, he kept his eyes closed. He offered no apologies and no explanations.

John Shanagher did not mention other ripple effects of the slaying: newspaper subscriptions canceled after repeatedly seeing Cullen’s picture, phone calls answered with trepidation in case a reporter or court officials were on the line announcing yet another proceeding had been delayed.

And only after court did Shanagher talk about how his family and his mother, Theresa, continue to go to Somerset Medical Center because that is where their doctors practice and it is covered by their health insurance. His mother said she is ``scared to death″ every time she goes.

By the end of the day, the tissues handed out that morning were still mostly unused. Back at home, the Shanaghers said they felt lighter, freed from some of their anguish. They made simple plans for the coming days: order Chinese food, watch TV, maybe go to the movies.

``There’s an old saying, `The Irish laugh at funerals and cry at weddings,‴ said Patricia Spaar, 58, another one of Jack Shanagher’s children. ``That’s us.″

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