Handyman

Handyman arrested after Cupertino investor present in shallow grave

CUPERTINO — A week after he went missing under mysterious circumstances, a well-known Cupertino real estate investor and civic leader was found in a shallow grave in the Central Valley, apparently strangled to death by a concerned handyman he had taken under his wing, authorities said.

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As the suspect hastily planned how to evade suspicion, he reportedly told his mother that “he buried a problem up in the mountains.”

Christopher Charles Ellebracht, 38

It was one of several acts where 38-year-old Christopher Charles Ellebracht connected the dots with himself, according to investigators. Before his mother’s tacit admission, he attempted to cash a $10,000 check from the victim at an ATM, which photographed him and his van. When he was arrested for threatening someone near the burial site with a knife, he was still carrying the wallet of 70-year-old Gin Lu “Tommy” Shwe.

“This is a callous and cold-blooded murder,” Sheriff Laurie Smith said at a news conference Monday in Cupertino. “Any loss of life is tragic, but the strangulation and soulless burial in an effort to hide and evade the pursuit of justice is particularly disturbing.”

But Joanne Ellebracht offers a different account of her son, saying that he has long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and that they both ran out of wisdom trying to get him services he desperately needed.

“I fought for 30 years to get my son psychiatric help,” said Joanne Ellebracht. “I was begging and begging people, ‘Please help him.’ The system doesn’t work.”

The mental illness, she said, fueled her son’s criminal history, including an encounter in Fontana in 2004 where he was shot by police while partially towing her with his truck during a vehicle stop, and a case last fall in Santa Cruz, where he reportedly struck over a dozen cars before being pulled over on Highway 17. On Jan. 14, four days before he was reported to have killed Shwe, he received a subpoena in South Lake Tahoe for alleged drug driving.

She added that she was devastated by the death of Shwe, to whom she owes a debt of gratitude for having given her son a job and helping him find housing for the past two years out of pure compassion.

“I loved Tommy, he helped Christopher a lot,” she said. “I am very sorry for his family.”

Christopher Ellebracht was charged with the murder of Shwe on Monday. The mountains he allegedly mentioned turned out to be the area near Three Rivers, a small town east of Visalia that leads to Sequoia National Park. On a remote country road, cadaver dogs with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team Wednesday found a hastily dug grave that concealed Shwe’s body.

Gin Lu “Tommy” Shwe, 70, of Cupertino Image courtesy of photo

An autopsy on Friday officially confirmed it was indeed Shwe and that he had been strangled with a rope or similar object. Shwe, a former school board member and prominent Cupertino civic leader, was reported missing Jan. 18 after failing to return from the 24-hour Sunnyvale gym the night before and missing a work meeting the morning.

Huei-Saint Shwe, the victim’s son, made a brief remark before urging the public to respect his family’s privacy.

“As the details of my father’s disappearance emerged, we were shocked and saddened that my father’s life story had such a tragic ending,” he said. “It is beyond us to understand how such a kind and generous soul like my father’s could have happened.”

Huei-Saint Shwe speaks while announcing the arrest of suspect Christopher Ellebracht in the murder of Shwe’s father, Gin Lu “Tommy” Shwe, during a news conference at Cupertino Community Hall in Cupertino, California on Monday. January 30, 2017. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)

Cupertino Mayor Savita Vaidhyanathan honored Tommy Shwe for his many years of service to the city, which includes serving on the school board in the 1980’s and various philanthropic acts since.

“We have lost a beloved resident and community leader who worked to improve the lives of our residents,” she said.

The morning Shwe was reported missing, his family noticed strange activity, beginning with a $10,000 check signed in his name deposited at an ATM in Morgan Hill.

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The big break in the case, however, came on Jan. 20, when Ellebracht’s white pickup truck was found abandoned near Three Rivers, prompting a response from a Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputy and a California Highway Patrol officer. An investigation of the van’s surroundings revealed a mobile phone that had fallen in a puddle, which was determined to be Shwe’s.

They contacted the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, who obtained a search warrant to take the van and investigate, leading them to formally link it to Ellebracht. Inside the vehicle, investigators found blood-stained clothing and a receipt for a shovel, which were purchased at a Morgan Hill Home Depot shortly after the check was deposited.

Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Investigators say this surveillance footage at a Morgan Hill Home Depot shows Christopher Ellebracht buying a shovel he allegedly used to bury Gin Lu “Tommy” Shwe, whose body was found in a shallow on Jan. 25, 2017 Tomb discovered outside of Visalia.

At this point, Ellebracht was already in the Tulare County jail, having been arrested in Visalia on Jan. 22 for allegedly brandishing a knife near a fast food restaurant. During this arrest, local police found him with Shwe’s wallet.

The next day, Visalia police learned from Joanne Ellebracht that her son had contacted her and told her he had “buried a problem” in a mountainous area and that he had migrated to town after his van got stuck in a river may be. This prompted authorities to return to Three Rivers and search the area where they found the van, and the search dogs found the shallow grave.

Joanne Ellebracht disputes the context in which authorities presented her son’s remarks, claiming it was more like the screaming of a mentally ill man than an admission of guilt. She said some of his beliefs include that he was both part of the CIA and targeted by it.

“He’s so insane that that’s a normal comment,” she said. “The police used my feelings to their advantage.”

Investigators countered this claim with the fact that the suspect’s mountain hikes effectively provided a road map to Shwe’s body. But they have found no motive, no clarity his family will be waiting for as they prepare to put their father to rest.

“We are also asking if anyone has additional information on my father’s case to contact the authorities.”

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