How a Simple Dispute Between Two Neighbors Ended in Death

VIDEO: Man in Jail for Killing Neighbor: I Was Afraid of Him
ABCNews.com

At age 56, documentary film maker and philanthropist John Upton was dead.

The father of three went outside his home on the morning of March 2, 2013, when he was shot in his midsection and then the head.

Family, Friends Search for Answers in Neighborly Dispute that Ended in Death

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Man Found Guilty in Neighbor's Murder

But Upton’s killer wasn’t a stranger. His next-door neighbor Michael Vilkin shot him with a .44 magnum gun and called the 911 shortly after.

While Vilkin claimed the shooting was in self-defense -- because he feared for his life -- Upton’s neighbor was found guilty of murder.

Click through to see how a simple dispute over brush and trees between neighbors John Upton and Michael Vilkin ended in death.

PHOTO: John Upton, a documentarian and philanthropist, and his girlfriend Evelyn Zeller lived on a quiet street in Encinitas, California.
Courtesy Elizabeth Upton
John Upton

Upton and his girlfriend Evelyn Zeller lived on a quiet street in Encinitas, California.

Zeller told "20/20" that the couple was peaceful and quiet and focused on helping others. Settled among the gentile hills, Lone Jack Road looked like the setting of any California dream.

But this quaint street would soon look more like a duel scene of a western film when two neighbors got into a dispute over landscaping.

PHOTO: In 2008, 55-year old Michael Vilkin, an immigrant from former Soviet Georgia, bought the 2.6 acre lot that was adjacent to the house Upton was renting.
Courtesy Tamara Vilkin
Michael Vilkin

In 2008, 55-year old Michael Vilkin, an immigrant from former Soviet Georgia, bought the 2.6 acre lot that was adjacent to the house Upton was renting.

In order to develop the land, Vilkin needed to clear the brush, including the non-native, invasive and poisonous Brazilan pepper-trees.

He spent every spare moment working the land, nursing it back to health in hopes to build his dream home. But many of his neighbors thought Vilkin had become obsessed, working the land the old fashioned way with a shovel and wheel barrow even using a handsaw and axe to control acres of brush.

John Upton’s family said it irked him that Vilkin was unnecessarily removing trees, and ruining the privacy of his rental home.

PHOTO: For over a year the neighbors John Upton and Michael Vilkin disputed over a narrow strip of land that was right outside Uptons front door.
San Diego Sheriffs Department
The Dispute

For over a year the two neighbors disputed over clearing of the lot, focusing on a narrow 130-foot strip of the land that was right outside Upton’s front door.

Vilkin wanted to clear it of invasive non-native Brazilian pepper-trees. Upton didn’t want him to cut down the trees.

The strip became a battleground. According to Michael Vilkin, Upton would intimidate him, screaming and yelling at him to stop cutting trees, every time he was out working on his land.

PHOTO: On March 28, 2013 John Upton and Michael Vilkins battle over land came to a deadly end.
San Diego Sheriffs Department
The Final Confrontation

On March 28, 2013, the battle over the land came to a deadly end.

According to prosecutors, Upton went outside that morning and was shot down by Vilkin, with a .44 caliber Ruger gun.

Vilkin said he saw Upton coming towards him, yelling and swearing, and holding what he thought was a gun. Vilkin said that when Upton got too close, Vilkin shot him in self-defense. The “gun” Vilkin thought he saw in Upton’s hand was in fact, a BlackBerry.

PHOTO: Michael Vilkin was arrested and held on a $5 million bail.
San Diego Sheriffs Department
Michael Vilkin's Arrest

Vilkin is arrested and is held on a $5 million bail.

Both families are left struggling to understand what happened between the two neighbors.

Vilkin’s wife told ABC News' Matt Gutman, “Michael has a beautiful heart. I did not believe it. I still don’t believe it.”

Upton’s children also struggle to find a reason behind the altercation that left their father dead.

“It’s devastating,” Elizabeth Upton, John Upton’s adult daughter, told "20/20." “Who would do this? Who is this guy [who] murdered my father in cold blood? For what?”

PHOTO: Michael Vilkin shot Upton twice: once in the abdomen, and then a second time in the head.
ABC News
The Trial

At his trial, Vilkin testified that he was acting out of self-defense, claiming on the stand that Upton had been verbally harassing him and he felt unsafe.

“I was afraid of John Upton,” Vilkin testified. “I was afraid he would do something dangerous.”

PHOTO: In his trial, Michael Vilkin testified that he was acting out of self-defense.
San Diego Sheriffs Department
The Gun

Vilkin shot Upton twice: once in the abdomen, and then, several seconds later, in the head.

He testified in court he thought he saw a gun in Upton’s hand.

“When he was about ten feet away, I saw a pistol in his right hand,” Vilkin said on the stand. “I pulled out my revolver and shot him, but he made a couple more steps. I screamed, ‘Stop!’ recocked and shot him in the head."

But investigators didn't find any evidence that Upton was carrying a gun. They only found Upton’s Blackberry at the scene.

A jury deliberated for three days and found him guilty of murder in the first degree and assault with a deadly weapon. He could face 50 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in August 2014.

PHOTO: In an exclusive jail-house interview with ABCs Matt Gutman, Michael Vilkin said he would not hesitate to act if he felt threatened.
ABC News
Jailhouse Interview

Even from jail, Vilkin is unapologetic about his actions.

In an exclusive jailhouse interview with ABC News' Matt Gutman, Vilkin said he would not hesitate to act if he felt threatened.

“I’m not [the] kind of person who, if you spit in my face, [will] just turn around and leave,” Vilkin said.

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