Authorities say a handyman has been arrested on suspicion of strangling a former Silicon Valley school board member whose body was found in a shallow grave.
Christopher Ellebracht, 38, is facing murder, financial elder abuse and forgery charges in connection with the death of Gin Lu "Tommy" Shwe, whose body was found Jan. 25 in Tulare County — hundreds of miles from the victim’s home, according to the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office.
Ellebracht, a handyman who had worked for Shwe for two years, was scheduled to be arraigned Monday afternoon.
“This is a callous and cold-hearted murder of a prominent community member, pioneer and family man,” Sheriff Laurie Smith said at a news conference Monday. “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.”
The 70-year-old Cupertino resident had disappeared roughly two weeks ago.
Shwe, a former Cupertino Union School District board member and prominent real estate agent, was last seen leaving 24-hour Fitness in Sunnyvale on the evening of Jan. 17, deputies said. Shwe’s family reported him missing the next day when he didn’t show up to a work meeting. His family was also concerned about his health because he required insulin and was known to get disoriented.
According to sheriff’s officials, his cellphone was turned off and he was not talking to his family.
Meanwhile, detectives continued digging into Shwe’s whereabouts and learned that Ellebracht had been hired by Shwe to do handiwork at his businesses, according to Lt. Julian Quinonez.
As detectives sifted through Shwe’s financial records, they discovered Ellebracht had deposited a forged check in Shwe’s name in the amount of $10,000 at an ATM in Morgan Hill on Jan. 18, according to the lieutenant. Surveillance cameras had also filmed Ellebracht buying a shovel at Home Depot on the morning Shwe disappeared, deputies said.
Days after Shwe’s disappearance, detectives got a major break in the case.
On Jan. 20, the California Highway Patrol found Ellebracht’s white cargo van abandoned on a mountain road near the community of Three Rivers, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Authorities searched the van and found “items of evidence that implied possible foul play,” Quinonez said. Authorities may have also found Shwe’s cellphone near the van.
As detectives began examining the van, Ellebracht was arrested Jan. 22 by Visalia police in an unrelated matter.
Ellebracht had brandished a knife at someone near a fast-food restaurant and was taken into custody, Quinonez said. Authorities found Shwe’s wallet on Ellebracht, he said.
Detectives returned to the site where Ellebracht’s van had been found and started searching nearby.
As police dogs, volunteers and detectives combed the area, they found Shwe’s body in the shallow grave. The grave was off a remote road near the area where Ellebracht’s van was discovered.
“We believe Mr. Ellebracht took a trip to Visalia to complete what he had started in our county,” Quinonez said.
News of Shwe’s death came as a blow to Cupertino residents.
Mayor Savita Vaidhyanathan said Shwe was a community leader who was devoted to making the city a better place to live.
“This is a very sad time for the Cupertino community,” she said.
When Shwe wasn’t serving on the school board and working with other community groups, he worked with his son, Huei-Saint Shwe, and his niece as a real estate agent.
On Monday, Huei-Saint Shwe told reporters his family was devastated by their father’s death.
“We were shocked and saddened that my father’s life story has come to such a tragic end,” he said. “It is incomprehensible to us how something like this could happen to a soul as kind and giving as my father’s.”