The onetime handyman for a prominent Silicon Valley community member was charged Monday with strangling his employer and burying the body in a shallow grave in remote foothills in the Central Valley, officials said.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith called the slaying of former Cupertino school board member Gin Lu “Tommy” Shwe “callous and cold-hearted” while announcing the arrest of the suspected killer at a news conference.
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Christopher Ellebracht, a 38-year-old Cupertino resident with a history of recent arrests in the South Bay, was arraigned Monday in Santa Clara County Superior Court on murder, financial elder abuse and forgery charges.
“We are shocked and saddened that my father’s life story has come to such a tragic end,” said Shwe’s adult son, Huei-Saint Shwe. “It is incomprehensible for us how something like this could happen to someone who was as kind and giving as our father.”
Gin Lu Shwe, a 70-year-old real estate agent and respected member of the Chinese community in the greater Bay Area, had hired Ellebracht at times over the past two years to work on his businesses, said Lt. Julian Quinonez, a detective with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.
That work relationship, though, came to an end sometime around Jan. 17 when Shwe’s family reported him missing.
Detectives were tipped off on Ellebracht after learning he had recently deposited a $10,000 check from Shwe into his bank account through an ATM in Morgan Hill.
Then on Jan. 20, California Highway Patrol officers found a van registered to Ellebracht ditched on the side of a rural road in the mountains outside Three Rivers (Tulare County). Inside the van, investigators found “items of evidence that implied possible foul play,” Quinonez said.
There was no sign of Ellebracht, but two days later police in nearby Visalia picked him up after they said he pulled a knife on someone near a fast-food joint. Ellebracht, police said, had Shwe’s wallet on him when he was arrested.
On Wednesday, search teams and canines fanned out in the remote area where Ellebracht’s van was found and eventually discovered Shwe’s strangled body buried in a shallow grave.
Investigators were working to determine a motive and pinpoint where Shwe was killed, but Smith on Monday said they don’t think he was killed in Cupertino.
“Any loss of life is tragic, but the strangulation and soulless burial — in an effort to cover and evade the pursuit of justice — is especially troubling,” she said.
Officials said the suspect was captured on surveillance video buying a shovel at a Home Depot the morning Shwe was reported missing.
“We believe Mr. Ellebracht took a trip to Visalia to complete what he started in Santa Clara County,” Quinonez said.
Shwe was the first Chinese American elected to the Cupertino school board, serving from 1985 to 1993.
Those in the Cupertino community who worked with him, meanwhile, were still reeling from the shocking loss of their friend and colleague.
“This is a very sad time,” Cupertino Mayor Savita Vaidhyanathan said. “We have lost a beloved resident and community leader who was devoted to making the life of our residents better.”
Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @EvanSernoffsky