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Man arrested in shooting death of Emmy-winning filmmaker

Michael Vilkin, 61, of Vista is suspected of murder in the death of John Upton, 56, who is best known for his work involving the plight of orphans in Romania. Vilkin claims self-defense.

March 30, 2013|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

ENCINITAS — A Vista man has been arrested in the shooting death of an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker best known for his work involving the plight of orphans in Romania.

Michael Vilkin, 61, was booked Thursday into county jail on a charge of murder in the death of John Upton, 56. Though the San Diego County Sheriff's Department has not revealed a motive, the shooting may have resulted from a property dispute.

Upton's body was found Thursday morning outside his home in the Olivenhain section of this upscale community. Vilkin reportedly owns a vacant lot next to the Upton family home.

In a jailhouse interview with KGTV Channel 10, Vilkin said he shot Upton in self-defense after the filmmaker, angry that Vilkin was trimming trees on his property, pulled a gun.

Upton was killed by "an apparent gunshot wound," the Sheriff's Department said. Vilkin was arrested hours later and is set for arraignment Tuesday.

Upton won an Emmy Award in 1990 for an after-school special on teenage promiscuity. After seeing a segment that year about Romanian orphans on ABC's "20/20," he decided to help publicize the orphans' brutal situation and bring as many as possible to America.

Four days later, he was in Bucharest meeting with government officials.

"There just wasn't any doubt in my mind that I could do something, that I could make a difference with these kids," Upton told The Times in 1990. "But I didn't waste much time thinking about it, I just went."

Upton was instrumental in bringing an estimated two dozen of the orphans to America for medical care and adoption.

"I went in there with the attitude of the angry American," Upton told The Times, "someone who was going to right the wrongs he found. I expected heartless officials and corruption. But that's not what I found at all. I found people who wanted to act but were handicapped by a lack of resources."

In recent years Upton had focused on social problems in the United States, including those of the aged, the abused and the disabled, and on the people working to correct them.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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