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Michael Vilkin listens to the prosecution during a preliminary hearing Monday. Vilkin will stand trial for the charge of murder. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Vilkin to stand trial for filmmaker’s death

VISTA — A judge ruled on Monday that there’s enough evidence for Michael Vilkin to stand trial for the fatal shooting of John Upton, a well-known filmmaker. 

For the count of murder, Vilkin faces 25 years to life. This spring, Vilkin pleaded not guilty to murder and a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

Vilkin shot Upton twice with a .44-caliber Magnum pistol March 28 in the 2900 block of Lone Jack Road in Encinitas, where both men lived. In a jailhouse interview shortly after the shooting, Vilkin told a reporter that Upton pulled a gun on him and the shooting was made in self-defense.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Detective Troy DuGal testified that no firearms or weapons were found in the vicinity of Upton’s body or in the surrounding area. A pistol was found in a nightstand near Upton’s bed during a subsequent search of his residence. But there’s no evidence that the weapon had been outside, DuGal said.

“I looked for dirt, vegetation, scuff marks — none,” DuGal said.

Vilkin, a former economist, owns a narrow path next to Upton’s property. During Vilkin’s arraignment this spring, prosecutor David Uyar said the land had been a source of conflict for the two men.

Two workers, who Vilkin hired on the morning of the shooting to trim trees and clear brush from the path, testified on Monday.

Macario Matias said that Upton’s Mercedes SUV was parked near where they were pruning. To give them space, Upton left his home and offered to move the vehicle. Then, he spotted Upton walking up the path toward Vilkin, who was about 100 feet away, according to Matias.

Shortly after, he heard two shots. Matias said he didn’t see Vilkin fire. But he assumed the shots came from Vilkin because he didn’t see anything in Upton’s hands or arms moments earlier. Also, Vilkin previously mentioned he owned a gun. Matias said Vilkin told him that he kept the firearm in a black case.

Fredi Rodriguez testified that he heard Vilkin yelling before the shooting. He and Matias fled after the gunfire.

“I thought he was going to shoot me, so I ran,” Rodriguez said.

Evelyn Zeller, Upton’s girlfriend, said she heard two gunshots five to seven seconds apart while in the house. She stepped out the front door, saw Vilkin and called to him. He turned away, walking behind some trees. Then, Zeller asked the workers if they knew what happened, and Matias pointed up the path. Walking in the direction, she saw someone on the ground, soon discovering it was Upton.

“I saw him lying in his blood,” Zeller said.

Moments after, she testified that Vilkin said: “Don’t get any (expletive) closer.”

“He was pointing his gun at my chest from about three feet away,” Zeller added, noting she’d never seen that gun before.

In his opposite hand, Vilkin held a black case, she said.

At that point, she turned around, threw her hands up, ran back into the house and called 911.

The shooting occurred on her birthday. And earlier that day, Upton’s mom had passed away after battling disease, she said. Zeller also said that the couple planned to move in two weeks.

Upton gained notoriety during his crusade to rescue Romanian orphans living in horrible conditions during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

A TV segment about Romanian orphanages in 1990 sparked his interest in helping them, he told “20/20” in a story about him. He visited the orphanages, videotaped the awful conditions and eventually convinced families to adopt some of the Romanian children.