Murder trial: My neighbor was an 'angry man'

SAN DIEGO - The case against Michael Vilkin recalls a line from a Robert Frost poem: "Good fences make good neighbors." From what came out in court, it was a fence and landscaping that tore two men apart.

Vilkin is accused of murdering John Upton, 56, by his Olivenhain house on March 28, 2013. Upton was a father of three who helped get dozens of kids adopted.

Vilkin took the stand at the Vista courthouse on Thursday and described Upton as an angry man. He described him as an enemy.

However, Vilkin also declared himself a coward. He said he was afraid of his neighbor, whom he called "John the Crazy."

At one point, he stood up to show how Upton would allegedly lunge at him as if to intimidate him.  

He said the two started off friendly two years before but things turned sour when he was cutting trees on his vacant lot, which was next to Upton's house.

He said it got so bad he bought guns to protect himself from Upton. He armed himself with a .44 Magnum, which he used last spring in the confrontation that left the documentary filmmaker dead.

Prosecutors said Vilkin was just feet away when he shot Upton in the stomach, then in the head.

Vilkin doesn't deny he killed him but said he did it in self defense. He said Upton often came at him like a bear yelling at him not to cut the trees and even grunting at him and calling him a "[expletive] Russian."

Vilkin told the court, "In the space of a second, I pulled out my revolver and shot him."

Defense attorney Richard Berkon then asked, "Why did you shoot him?"

Vilkin responded, "Because I saw a pistol and I was in fear of my life."

Upton was unarmed, though, and Vilkin was arrested and charged with murder.

He claimed they'd been arguing for a year over property lines and cutting down trees.

Vilkin said he shot Upton in the stomach as he'd been taught in the Russian military, but Upton didn't immediately go down. Upton took a couple of steps toward his assailant.

"It went through my mind that he was wearing a bullet vest. I screamed, 'Stop!' and shot him in the face," said Vilkin.

Vilkin, himself, called 911.

Deputy District Attorney David Uyar accused Vilkin of planning the shooting and using heavy duty ammunition.  

"Not 10 feet away, you said you shot, you pulled it out and in a second, cocked the weapon while it was still in your waistband," said Uyar.

Vilkin is being held in jail on $5 million bail.

The defense is expected to wrap up early next week. Then it's in the jury's hands.

If convicted, Vilkin faces life in prison.

Upton was an internationally acclaimed humanitarian who was profiled on ABC's 20/20 for his efforts to rescue Romanian orphans.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments