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News

Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker, Humanitarian Killed By Neighbor During Tree-Trimming Dispute

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The documentary filmmaker and humanitarian John Upton was shot and killed yesterday by a neighbor after the two got into an argument about tree-trimming.The shooting happened in Encinitas on Thursday morning around 9 am, and Upton's neighbor Michael Vilkin, 61, was arrested on suspicion of murder, according to a local affiliate Fox 5 San Diego. Upton, 56, had been shot in the head and stomach, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. His body was found lying on a dirt path between the two sprawling properties. Authorities have not identified Upton, but they said that he died during a "dispute between two adults males" in a statement.

Vilkin told a local ABC affiliate KGTV that he acted in self defense. For the last year, the neighbors had been having a dispute about trimming trees between the two properties. Vilkin said Upton was obsessed with privacy and demanded that Vilkin not cut the greenery, even though it was on Vilkin's property. Vilkin claims Upton threatened him in the last week, and he says that he reported that threat to the San Diego Sheriff's Department.

On the day of the shooting, Vilkin said he was trimming the greenery on his property, and he claims Upton confronted him with a gun. Vilkin told ABC, "It was self-defense; I did not go to him. He came to me threatening and pulled a gun at me. I did not go to him. I stayed away on my property."

He said he shot Upton once in the stomach with his .44-caliber Magnum, but Upton continued to come at him, so he shot him in the head. The TV station asked if Vilkin felt bad for killing Upton. He called it "unfortunate" and added: "I'm glad I'm alive."

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Upton was a documentary filmmaker. He won an Emmy award in 1990 for an after-school special about teenage promiscuity. He was also known for his humanitarian work with Romanian orphans. After he saw a special on 20/20 about Romanian orphanages, he went to the country and brought back orphans who had serious birth defects and were suffering badly. He worked to investigate what was happening, and he helped to bring more than 5,000 orphans over to the U.S. for adoption. Philanthropist Richard Branson, actress Jessica Lange and lawmakers helped him in the cause.

The San Diego Union-Tribune spoke with some of the orphans who Upton helped to rescue. Izidor Ruckel, 32, says doctors had written him off as dimwitted while he lived under abusive conditions at a Romanian orphanage. But he was grateful that Upton crusaded for orphans like him: “He’s the reason I’m alive.”

Upton went on to create Media4aCause, an online network of films about charitable causes that featured work from him and other filmmakers.

Upton's family said it was hard to imagine how someone like Upton could be killed in this way. His brother Michael Upton called him a "fearless crusader" and told Fox 5, "He was a good man. He saved a lot of kids."