Not guilty plea in Encinitas filmmaker’s death

Not guilty plea in Encinitas filmmaker’s death
Michael Vilkin is ushered into an arraignment hearing. He stands accused of murdering John Upton. Photo courtesy of Don Boomer, U-T San Diego

ENCINITAS — Michael Vilkin, 61, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to the murder charge of John Upton, a 56-year-old filmmaker known for exposing the horrors found in Romanian orphanages. 

Vilkin shot Upton twice with a revolver March 28 near their homes on the 2900 block of Lone Jack Road.

Prosecutors said the evidence so far doesn’t support the defendant’s claim of self-defense.

Vilkin has a vacant lot and easement next to the home where Upton was living at, according to prosecutor David Uyar. On the morning of March 28, Vilkin hired two workers to clear the brush from the easement.

Moments before the shooting, Upton saw the workers and offered to move his car out of the way. Upton saw Vilkin on the hill above and began walking toward him. When Upton got within 10 feet, Vilkin fired two shots at Upton, hitting him in the abdomen and head, Uyar said in court.

“There doesn’t seem to be an active threat the victim was making at the time,” Uyar said.

Previously, the two men were in a dispute over brush and tree trimmings, according to Uyar. He added that there hadn’t been any “violent altercations” between the two men in the past.

Last week, during an interview with 10News, Vilkin claimed that the shooting was made in self-defense.

“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).”

But Uyar said that there isn’t evidence to support that claim.

“The investigation is ongoing,” Uyar said. “The facts and circumstances don’t seem to support that theory at this time.”

Uyar noted that Upton didn’t have a gun on him, only a cell phone, when deputies arrived at the scene. Additionally, he said that it’s believed words weren’t exchanged between the men before the shooting.

Upton’s girlfriend heard the shots, left the house and rushed toward his body. When she got closer to Upton’s body, Vilkin pointed the revolver at her and told her not to move any closer. She put her hands up and ran back into the house to call 911, Uyar said.

Vilkin also stands accused of assault with a deadly weapon. He pleaded not guilty to that charge as well.

Uyar added that Upton was distraught that morning because his mother had just died.

Vilkin is being held on $5 million bail and will be assigned a public defender. For the count of murder, Vilkin faces 25 years to life. The assault with a deadly weapon charge carries a maximum of four years.

Upton had gained prominence with his crusade to rescue Romanian orphans.

In a 20/20 story about him, Upton said a TV segment about Romanian orphanages in 1990 kicked him into action.

“I saw some kids on television, and my life totally changes,” Upton said in the interview.

Four days later, Upton left San Diego to meet with Bucharest officials. He then visited the orphanages. Once there, he videotaped the poor conditions and eventually convinced families to adopt some of the Romanian children.

Shortly after the shooting, Sheriff’s deputies blocked off the surrounding area with caution tape. Several residents waited on the perimeter, unable to access their homes.

One of those residents was David Gafen, who said he didn’t know Upton very well. But he noted that Upton rented a home at the site.



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