The Modern-Day Texas Slave Ranch

“We don’t bury them. We burn them.” —Walter Ellebracht Jr., clarifying a practical point on the ranch

In A Nutshell

The Ellebrachts were characters ripped straight out of a low-budget horror movie. This twisted family lived in the Texas Hill Country, chopping down trees and selling the lumber. However, their business relied on slave labor. Plenty of unlucky hitchhikers ended up on their ranch, bound in chains and forced to work . . . and not all of them survived.

The Whole Bushel

The Ellebracht clan lived in the woody hills of Kerr County, Texas during the 1980s, and when they drove into nearby Mountain Home, it was like the Sawyer family had come to town. Walter Ellebracht Sr. and his 33-year-old son, Junior, weren’t partial to baths, and they often walked around in their bare feet. The Ellebrachts made money chopping down trees and selling the wood to San Antonio businesses. They also sold little homemade key chains to nearby gas stations, and it was Ellebracht Sr.’s dream to become the “key chain king of the Texas Hill Country.” But to be a king, you need a lot of servants.

With the help of their foreman, Carlton Robert Caldwell, the Ellebrachts picked up hitchhikers and offered them lodging in exchange for work. It sounded like a good idea, but the drifters quickly found out once they checked in, they could never leave. The men were put to work chopping down trees, and at night, they were chained to their beds inside of a dilapidated, old bunkhouse. The Ellebrachts threatened their slaves with guns and knives, and when two men asked to leave, they were chained together and forced to dig their own graves.

While all the prisoners suffered, Anthony Bates had it the worst. Caldwell and Ellebracht Jr. took special pleasure in tormenting the one-eyed Alabamian and encouraged other slaves to take part. Bates was bound and zapped with an electric cattle prod. His tormentors shocked his genitals and tongue, all the while goading him to scream louder. Someone taped the torture sessions, and the recordings began with the disturbing announcement, “Live from the bunkhouse—it’s shock time!” Eventually, Bates was electrocuted to death, and his body was burned while the Ellebrachts played Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Finally, in 1984, someone escaped from the Ellebrachts and phoned the police. Authorities swarmed the ranch on April 6, and Ellebracht Sr., Junior, and Caldwell were tried for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder. Despite witnesses, bone fragments and the taped torture sessions, the defendants got off relatively easy. Their lawyer was Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, one of the best in the state. He had a flair for theatrics and had a member of his team shock himself with a cattle prod to prove it didn’t hurt that all that badly. Haynes played the torture tapes over and over to desensitize the jury, and he pointed out that several of the prosecution’s witnesses had also taken part in the torture sessions. Thanks to his extreme tactics, and perhaps a bigoted attitude towards homeless drifters, Ellebracht Sr. was given probation, and both Junior and Caldwell were given 15 years behind bars. Neither served their full sentence, proving Texas justice isn’t always swift and harsh.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: A Texas Trial—Tale of Death and Torture
The Day: 3 convicted in kidnap conspiracy, some jurors wept at tapes of torture
‘Texas Slave Ranch’ offspring made the best of life