Film-maker killed in row with neighbour

American who recorded plight of children in Romanian orphanages is shot dead after dispute over pruning of trees

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The Independent US

A film-maker who exposed the plight of children in Romanian orphanages in the early 1990s has been shot dead after a feud with a neighbour over the trimming of trees.

John Upton was an Emmy award-winning documentary film-maker who rescued dozens of orphaned Romanian children, bringing them to new families in the US. He publicised the brutal conditions of starving children living like animals in state-run orphanages, and his work gained the support of figures such as Sir Richard Branson and the actress Jessica Lange.

The 56-year-old died on Thursday after being shot in Encinitas, California, by one of his neighbours. Michael Vilkin, 61, who owns the vacant lot next door to Mr Upton's home, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. Mr Vilkin is to appear in court on Tuesday, when he will be formally charged with homicide.

It is understood that the two men had a long-standing dispute over the pruning of trees and foliage along a boundary fence. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department confirmed that a dispute between the two men had led to the shooting of the father of three.

In an interview that was broadcast on US television, Mr Vilkin claimed he fired in self-defence after Mr Upton, angry that he was trimming trees on his property, threatened him with a gun. "He assaulted me … and I shot him."

He admitted shooting Mr Upton twice. "I shot him. I predicted him to fall immediately because this is a .44-calibre Magnum. He did not; he did two or three steps toward me and then I shot him in the head," Mr Vilkin said. "It was self-defence: I did not go to him. He came to me, threatening, and pulled a gun at me. I stayed away on my property," he added.

But Mr Upton's brother Michael disputes the account, alleging Mr Vilkin had "wrapped a gun up inside of a jacket, a handgun, proceeded basically to try to bait my brother into a confrontation and pulled a gun out and shot him right there in the head." He revealed that his brother had been planning to move house "because this guy was a jerk".

Mr Upton's death came just hours after his mother died from cancer. His brother said on Friday: "I think yesterday was the hardest day of my life. My Mum passed away from cancer and just a few hours later my brother was murdered. I drove to the crime scene last night just to get a grasp on what took place."

In the posting on Facebook, he added: "It appears that my brother's neighbour baited him into an argument and then pulled a concealed pistol out and shot him in the head killing him instantly.

"The police have the killer in custody and he has been charged with first-degree murder.

"I'm just numb from this. My brother did a lot of great things … He was most known for rescuing handicapped orphan children from Communist Romania and bringing them to the United States for surgical procedures and adoption."

In recent years, Mr Upton had turned his attention to issues closer to home, focusing on social problems in the US, and created Media4aCause, an online network of films about charitable causes.

The aftermath of the shooting has shocked people living nearby. Daniel Woodward, a neighbour, said: "My mother is devastated. I was woken up to the sound of the gunshots, and she came running upstairs." He added: "I didn't believe it at first because it's just something that we never see in Encinitas."

Michael Upton has paid tribute to his brother, whom he described as "a fearless crusader" and someone who was "always trying to find a way to make a difference in the world".