Man suspected in shooting death of filmmaker John Upton charged with murder

Michael Vilkin called shooting 'self-defense'

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 foliage in the neighborhood pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

Michael Vilkin was ordered held on $5 million bail in the 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.

Upton, 56, died on a dirt path in his yard in the 2900 block of Lone Jack Road shortly after 9 a.m. last Thursday. The slaying evidently resulted from a running dispute between the two men, said sheriff's Lt. James Bolwerk.

Deputy District Attorney David Uyar said Tuesday that Vilkin had a crew clearing brush in an empty lot near the victim's home when the shooting occurred.

"The victim was up early because his mother had died that morning. He observed the workers (hired by Vilkin) and came out to them and offered to move his car because it was blocking some of the brush there," said Uyar.

Upton walked up a dirt road toward the defendant, and when he got to within 10 feet of Vilkin, the defendant fired twice, striking the victim in the abdomen and the head, the prosecutor alleged.

Upton's girlfriend, who was in their home and heard the gunshots, ran toward the victim but was stopped by Vilkin, according to Uyar.

"She was getting closer to the victim's body as it lay there and the defendant pointed a gun and her and told her not to get any closer and she threw up her hands and ran back in the house. She called 911 and so did the defendant," said Uyar.

Uyar said Upton was unarmed and had only his cellphone as he walked toward Vilkin. The prosecutor said the victim made no aggressive moves toward the defendant.

In a jailhouse interview with 10News, the suspect, who owns a vacant lot next to Upton's property, said he fired the fatal shots in self-defense.

Vilkin told 10News reporter John Carroll that 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. The suspect said he shot the filmmaker in the abdomen and head with a .44-caliber Magnum pistol to protect himself.

"I did not go to him," Vilkin said. "He came to me threatening and pulled a gun (on) me. I did not go to him. I stayed (following the shooting)."

Upton's brother, Michael, praised his late sibling as "a good man" who "saved a lot of kids."

The filmmaker, a father of three, showed video footage of the orphans to couples and succeeded in getting dozens of the children adopted. He also gained the attention of influential activists, inspiring billionaire philanthropist Richard Branson, actress Jessica Lange and lawmakers to help rescue some 5,000 youngsters from Romania.

Michael Upton said of his brother, "He was a fearless crusader. He always wanted to help people and make a difference, that's what he was about … His (three) children are devastated."

Vilkin faces 25 years to life if convicted of murder. He will be back in court April 10 for a preliminary hearing.

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