VISTA, Calif. — An Encinitas man who shot and killed a neighbor with whom he’d been feuding over the cutting of bushes and trees on the defendant’s vacant lot in Olivenhain was convicted Friday of first-degree murder.
Michael Vilkin, who was also convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, faces 35 years to life in prison when sentenced Aug. 27 for killing John Upton, a documentary filmmaker who gained fame for his crusade to rescue Romanian orphans living in nightmarish conditions during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Vilkin, a 62-year-old former economist from the Soviet Union, testified that he shot Upton on March 28, 2013, in self-defense.
Jurors got the case Tuesday, but on Thursday, Judge Robert Kearney dismissed a juror for conducting experiments related to the case on his own, forcing deliberations to begin anew.
Deputy District Attorney David Uyar told jurors that on the day of the shooting, Vilkin showed up with two workers to cut bushes and shrubbery on his property adjacent to Upton’s rental home.
When Upton walked up an easement and approached Vilkin, the defendant “calmly and coolly” shot the 56-year-old victim in the abdomen from close range and then fired again, hitting him in the head, according to the prosecutor.
Vilkin also pointed his gun at Upton’s girlfriend when she came outside to check on the victim.
Arriving officers found Vilkin’s 44-caliber Magnum in a case, but no other weapons were found near Upton’s body, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Richard Berkon told the jury that the killing was “justified.” He said Upton had been bullying, intimidating and cursing at Vilkin for months because he didn’t like the defendant clearing trees and ruining the view.
The day of the shooting, as his workers cleared brush, Vilkin stood up on a hill and put his gun in his waistband, just in case Upton came out to confront him, his attorney said.
About 30 minutes later, Upton approached saying “Do me a favor!” and Vilkin thought he saw a gun in his hand and shot him, Berkon said.
When the bullet didn’t stop Upton, Vilkin shot him a second time, Berkon told the jury.
After the shooting, Vilkin called 911 and told authorities that he was the person who fired the shots because “he had nothing to hide,” his attorney said.
A cellphone was located near Upton’s body.