Family and friends of the suspect in the fatal shooting of his 36-year-old neighbor Saturday morning said the tragedy likely could have been prevented had he received help with mental health problems that had worsened significantly in recent months.
Police arrested Shane M. Helmbrecht, 44, after they say he shot and killed Jenny Ward at her home at 105 Simon Court on Eau Claire's north side near Mount Simon Park. On Monday Eau Claire County Judge Jon Theisen set a $1 million bond for Helmbrecht, who told police he ingested methamphetamine the day before shooting Ward and has no mental health issues.
"This wasn't Shane," an emotional Tammy Fiore, a friend of Helmbrecht's, said of the shooting. "It was his mental illness ... People tried to get (Helmbrecht) help. They tried lots of times. But none of those efforts worked, and this is the result."
Friends said Helmbrecht, 44, a decorated military veteran, served tours of duty in Operation Desert Storm and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he cleared roadside bombs with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He was once a fun-loving, humorous, caring friend who was a talented musician and carpenter, his friends said. He went out of his way to help others in need, they said, and had a big personality and a zest for life.
However, Helmbrecht's previously friendly demeanor changed after he returned home from his last tour of duty in September 2007. Gone was the fun-loving personality, replaced by a more somber, withdrawn side. In recent months Helmbrecht increasingly had shut out family and friends, they said, and had grown increasingly paranoid.
Concerned about his behavior, Helmbrecht's parents relocated from Sun Prairie to Eau Claire to try to get him help, his friends said. But that didn't happen in time to prevent Ward's death, they said.
Fiore, of Eau Claire, said Helmbrecht's family and friends had tried in recent months to get him help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But those efforts and others to receive mental health assistance locally failed, Fiore and others said.
Fiore and other longtime Helmbrecht friends Jason Knetter and Tracy Blechinger, both of Eau Claire, expressed shock and sorrow at Ward's death.
"I feel so bad for the victim's family," an emotional Knetter said. "I can't imagine the pain and loss they are going through."
Fiore offered a similar sentiment.
"I grieve over what this family is going through," she said of Ward's family that includes her husband and two children. "I hope God is wrapping his arms around that family."
Details about efforts to obtain counseling help or other assistance for Helmbrecht remain uncertain. His mother, Patricia Helmbrecht, declined to be interviewed for this story.
A spokesman for the Tomah VA Medical Center was not available for comment Monday. Eau Claire police Detective Lt. Derek Thomas said the department is continuing its investigation of the shooting and is looking into any possible contacts between Helmbrecht, his family or friends and police.
"That is part of our investigation," Thomas said of Helmbrecht's mental health status and whether he contacted police previously seeking assistance. "We will be reaching out to Veterans Affairs and others to try to track down exactly what happened."
'Never the same'
Fiore, Blechinger and Knetter said their friend was adversely impacted by the explosion of a military vehicle during his last tour of duty that killed his best friend and others her served with. The blast resulted in hearing loss and a concussion for Helmbrecht. But the emotional damage went deeper, they said.
"After that last tour, Shane was never the same," Knetter said.
After his return from Iraq, Helmbrecht recorded an album "Fools Like Me," some of which detailed his life in the military and as a carpenter. Writing, playing and performing music was a way for Helmbrecht to unwind, they said.
On Monday the trio discussed their friend's worsening mental health, how in recent months he had stopped returning texts or phone calls. On Thursday Knetter drove to Helmbrecht's home, which he was remodeling, in an effort to connect. But Helmbrecht wasn't home. The next Knetter heard of his friend was a news report describing the shooting.
Blechinger last saw Helmbrecht at a party. Now that seems like a lifetime away.
"This whole thing seems like a bad dream," she said.