Man accused in shooting death of filmmaker John Upton to stand trial
Men had been in running dispute over shrubbery
Last Updated: 80 days ago
VISTA, Calif. - A 61-year-old Encinitas man accused of gunning down a documentary filmmaker outside the victim's Olivenhain home following a months-long dispute over shrubbery must stand trial on charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, a judge ruled Monday.
Michael Vilkin faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted of the March 28 death of John Upton, who gained fame for his crusade to rescue Romanian orphans living in nightmarish conditions during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Following a daylong preliminary hearing, Vista Judge Sim von Kalinowski ruled that there was enough evidence against Vilkin for him to stand trial. A Superior Court arraignment was set for Oct. 7.
Upton, 56, died March 28 on a dirt path in his yard in the 2900 block of Lone Jack Road shortly after 9 a.m. The two men had been in a running dispute, sheriff's Lt. James Bolwerk said.
At Vilkin's arraignment, Deputy District Attorney David Uyar said that Vilkin had a crew clearing brush in a vacant lot near the victim's home when the shooting occurred.
The victim realized his car was in the way and asked the crew if they wanted him to move it, Uyar said.
Upton walked up a dirt road toward Vilkin, he said. When Upton got within 10 feet of Vilkin, Vilkin defendant fired twice, striking Upton in the abdomen and the head, the prosecutor alleged.
Upton's girlfriend, who heard the gunshots from inside Upton's home, ran toward Uptown but was stopped by Vilkin, according to Uyar.
"When the girlfriend got close to the victim, who was lying in the roadway, the defendant pointed the weapon at her and told her not to come any closer," Uyar alleged.
Upton's girlfriend, Evelyn Zeller, testified Monday that as she approached the path, she recognized Upton.
“I saw his head in his blood," she said.
She testified that Vilkin said, “'Don’t get any [expletive] closer!'"
Zeller added, “All I remember is this: his arm stretched out with a gun pointed at me. All I said was, ‘Oh my God!’ Then time stood still. I wasn’t scared for my life. All I saw was his body, no spirit in the body. I turned and threw my hands up and ran back in the house to call 911."
Uyar said Upton was unarmed and had only his cellphone as he walked toward Vilkin. The prosecutor said Upton made no aggressive moves toward the defendant.
In a jailhouse interview, Vilkin, who owns a vacant lot next to Upton's property, told 10News he fired the shots in self-defense.
Vilkin told the television station he was trimming shrubbery – an activity that he called the source of the ill will between the men –when Upton confronted him and demanded that he stop, then pulled a gun. Vilkin said he shot Upton with a .44-caliber Magnum pistol to protect himself.
Upton, a father of three, has helped get dozens of the children adopted. He also gained the attention of British billionaire philanthropist Richard Branson, actress Jessica Lange and lawmakers to help rescue some 5,000 youngsters from Romania.
Copyright 2013 by City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.