Well-known filmmaker killed in Encinitas shooting: John Upton advocated for Romanian orphans

Police: Deadly incident stemmed from dispute

ENCINITAS, Calif. - A 61-year-old man was in custody Friday on suspicion of killing an Encinitas filmmaker who gained fame for his crusade to rescue orphans kept in nightmarish conditions in Romania during the communist dictatorship of the late Nicolae Ceausescu.

Michael Vilkin of Encinitas was arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with the fatal shooting that occurred in the 2900 block of Lone Jack Road shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, according to San Diego County sheriff's Lt. James Bolwerk.

The victim, who was apparently shot in the head, died at the scene. He was found lying on a dirt path between two sprawling homes.

"We believe this was the result of a dispute between two adults males," Bolwerk said in a statement.

Though authorities withheld his name, 10News learned that the victim is father of three John C. Upton, 56.

Vilkin owns a vacant lot near where the shooting occurred and there appeared to be an ongoing dispute between the two men, possibly involving trees, 10News learned.

"[He] wrapped a gun in his jacket and proceeded to bait my brother and pulled out the gun and shot [him] in the head," said the victim's brother, Michael Upton.

Upton added his brother was planning to move to a new house in Fallbrook "because this guy was a jerk."

In a cruel twist of fate, Upton's mother died of cancer hours before his brother's death.

"It was the worst day of my life," he said.

"He was a good man. He saved a lot of kids," Upton told U-T San Diego. "Here's a guy who went into a communist country and basically didn't allow himself to get bullied by the government or corrupt people over there. And he took these kids who were crippled from birth defects from trying to be aborted, and brought them back to the United States to get medical care and get adopted."

"My brother was a fearless crusader," Michael Upton added.

The victim became interested in Romanian orphans after watching an episode of ABC's "20/20" about a prison-like orphanage.

One girl featured in the show, Elena, caught his interest because she had a leg that jutted out an obscene angle and had to scoot around on her bottom to get around. ABC News documented Upton as he traveled to Romania just days later to investigate how to get the children to the United States for treatment and adoption.

Once back in the U.S., he showed video footage of the children to couples and succeeded in getting dozens of orphans 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 orphans from Romania.

Upton went on to create Media4aCause, an online network of films about charitable causes featuring many of his films and others.

As detectives continue their investigation into the shooting, neighbors talk about losing a great man.

"Oh my mom's devastated. I was woken up to the sound of the gunshots, and she came running upstairs," said Daniel Woodward, a neighbor and family friend of Upton.

Residents said they were shocked by what happened.

"You know, I didn't believe it at first because it's just something that we never see happen in Encinitas," said Woodward.

"My brother was always trying to find a way to make a difference in the world," Michael Upton said.

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