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Slavery charges shock Texas hill country

By MARK LANGFORD

MOUNTAIN HOME, Texas -- Leona Ellebracht's friends and neighbors came in droves to the elderly woman's tiny, wood frame store, but they were not shopping for their usual gasoline, soft drinks, fried pies or candy bars.

Instead, they brought sympathy and support for three members of the 81-year-old woman's family, charged Friday with enslaving and torturing hitchhikers and shocking one hapless drifter to death with a cattle prod.

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'Nobody believes it,' snapped Mrs. Ellebracht, her eyes glaring through thick glasses under a shock of white hair.

Her grandson, Walter Ellebracht Jr., 31, and his wife, Joyce, 29, and her son, Walter Ellebracht Sr., 53, are charged with aggravated kidnapping and murder. They are being held in the Kerr County Jail in lieu of $200,000 bonds.

On April 6, state and federal officials armed with a search warrant entered the Ellebracht ranch and freed six hitchhikers who claimed they were enslaved, tortured and chained in a barn at night to prevent escape.

Charred bones found on the ranch were determined to be from a human.

Drifter Mark Hamilton of Los Angeles said the bones belong to Anthony Bates, a drifter who died March 13 after 20 to 30 torture sessions with a cattle prod.

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Hamilton, who worked on the ranch last year, and two other men from the ranch were also charged with murder in Bates' death.

Despite charges of murder and kidnapping at the 3,500-acre cattle ranch, the people around Mountain Home, population 98, are reluctant to condemn the Ellebrachts.

And Leona, who 'still rules the roost,' contended her 'children' have done nothing wrong.

'We don't hire nobody we don't pay,' she said. 'My kids don't lie to me. God will see it. God will see it and he knows.'

One Mountain Home woman, who asked not to be identifed, said she does not think all those things could have happened at the ranch without people noticing.

'I wasn't up there. I don't know what happened,' the woman said. 'But I don't believe they did it.'

The woman described tiny Mountain Home as 'a place in your heart,' where the Ellebracht's gave people 'the best they'd had.'

Among Mrs. Ellebracht's vistors were the pastor of the Sunset Baptist Church, who brought good wishes from her jailed family, and rancher Dan Waters, who staked out a chair in the tiny store to protect the woman from reporters and curious passersby.

One housewife stopped by with her three daughters, wanting to know if Mrs. Ellebracht, known to everyone as grandma, 'needed anything from town.'

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'You see how many friends I got,' the old woman said. 'I've got more friends than most people.'

Mrs. Ellebracht is staunch in the defense of her family, but with one reservation. She said she could not tolerate a killing.

'If they killed a man, I hope they burn in hell. I do,' she said. 'Do you think I'd want a boy who kills?'

But according to sworn depositions filed at the county courthouse in Kerrville 20 miles away, the alleged killing was only one incident in a bizarre story of forced labor and degradation.

People claimed they were chained together to cut firewood and cedar, which are carved into keychains and sold at the store. They claimed they were forced to dig ditches at gunpoint while being told they were digging their own graves.

One day, the Ellebrachts allegedly produced a sack filled with red jello and a piece of steak, telling their captives it was the remains of a worker who 'got smart.'

Kerr County Sheriff Cliff Greeson helped authorities recover guns, handcuffs, chains, a cattle prod, and 18 cassette recordings, which Hamilton claims were made while Walter Ellebracht Jr. allegedly tortured Bates.

Despite shock from many in Kerr County, Greeson said he was taking the investigation in stride. As a Dallas police detective in 1963, Greeson was helping escort Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John Kennedy, when Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

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'Not hardly anything surprises me anymore,' he said.

So far, only Travis Boyd, who left the ranch and alerted authorities, has offered an explanation for the Ellebrachts' alleged behavior.

The drifter said he was chained to a tree and asked Joyce Ellebracht why they wanted to kill him. He said she replied that her mother-in-law, the elder Ellebracht's wife, 'had run off with a hitchhiker.'

'And so this, as far as I know, was the reasoning behind the whole ordeal,' he said.

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