The Vista courtroom is locked in that kind of quiet when even the breathing is shallow. Everyone looks straight ahead. On one side of the room are the victim’s family and friends; on the other are a smaller number for the defendant. All are waiting.
Finally, maddeningly slow, lawyers and the defendant stand as jurors file in and take their seats, verdict in hand. It’s June 20 — the day of reckoning for Michael Vilkin.
Vilkin, 62, is a Russian émigré of some 30 years ago; a small man of gray beard who has never been in trouble. He was an economist in his home country, but has been unable to find meaningful work in California. He is said to be mild-mannered and kind.
Others say he’s a murderer. That on March 28, 2013, because of a two-year property dispute on Lone Jack Road in Encinitas, he took a large handgun and shot neighbor John Upton to death.
The people of the state of California called it murder in the first degree.
In the tense courtroom, the verdict is read, and the jury agrees: guilty.
Unless an appellate court should rule otherwise, Vilkin’s life as a free man is over.
(No matter what the dispute between the two men, by every account, John Upton was a philanthropic man with a generous spirit. He should still be enriching the lives of those he loved.)
No one in the courtroom is greatly surprised. Except one.
A stunned woman in the second row believed the jury would acquit Vilkin. And she will always insist he acted in self-defense. If the whole world believes Vilkin is guilty, then the whole world is wrong.
She is a quiet woman holding an open Bible. Her clothes drape because she has lost 20 pounds. The grief diet. She seems fragile, and she has made no attempt to emotionally protect herself from the thunder clap of the law that she thought would not happen.
Day after day, she sat in the same seat reading her Bible, especially the book of Job, searching for strength and answers to the anguish that descended on her like a plague of locusts.
Next to her, ever faithful, were women from her church and parents of her piano students giving support to a woman they love.
The jury did what the jury did. My interest is that woman.
If you imagine a small woman of 56 with a hint of gray in her auburn hair, with granny glasses and a patient, soft voice, proper but not quite prim, whose anger would top off at a frown, then you would have the image of the grandma everyone would like to have had. And, yes, you would also have Tamara Vilkin, a gentle piano teacher who would hug a whinny, tone-deaf adolescent.
Tamara was born in Minsk, Belarus. Back then, it was part of the Soviet Union. Her father ran off when she was 8 months old.
“It was me and my mom, and it was not an easy life. Sometimes it was not enough money to get from one salary to another, but we survived. She was working in construction. It was a cold place to work on the road.
“In spite of all of this, she was willing to pay for my piano lessons. I tried my best and I graduated from music college.”
In 1982 she met her husband, Michael, an economist. Soon after marriage, they decided to emigrate from mother Russia. The Soviet Union had stopped issuing visas at the time, so by his signaling that he wanted to leave, Michael was labeled a “refusenik” and became tainted for any good jobs. He ended up stocking store shelves, but continued to petition to leave the country.
Exit visas were finally granted five years later, and the couple first went to Vienna, then eventually made their way to New York City in 1987.
Other than jobs such as security guard, Michael had a tough time finding a place in our economy. A Soviet-trained economist was not a smooth fit in a capitalist system. Tamara the piano teacher was the main support for many years.
“We had not much money, but life is not about money always. My husband is very optimistic man. He’s the fun man. He’s loving man. We were very close,” Tamara says.
Michael earned an MBA degree and continued to write about the economy, but paying jobs remained elusive.
“In 2008, we bought the land in Encinitas. Then the trouble started,” she says.
The 2.6-acre, unimproved parcel on Lone Jack Road was going to be their retirement nest egg. But a conflict over ownership of an access road developed with the neighboring landowner. Eventually, somehow, Upton, a renter, became involved.
“Michael worked very hard over there. It was a jungle when we bought it. It’s a lot of dead brush and dead trees. He just himself, he cleaned so much over there. He did beautiful job. We were waiting and waiting; maybe the bank will start lending money. Maybe we will build a house, but it never happened because of the problems.”
Tamara says she knew Michael had bought a gun, but he tended to keep troubles internal, so she never learned just how toxic the situation on Lone Jack Road had become.
On the day of the shooting, she tried to call his cellphone several times without success. Finally, she drove over. There, she saw flashing lights, and police and media all over. She asked someone what had happened, and she was told someone had been killed. She immediately assumed it was Michael.
What exactly did happen? Stuff happened, and that’s a polite noun. There’s no point in rehashing what a jury has ruled.
A month has passed, and Tamara’s tears have dried into sad resolve. She has been warned that appellate courts are hard to convince, but she will push ahead with an appeal, though it could exhaust her remaining assets.
“One of the correspondent called me, a young girl. She said, ‘Mrs. Vilkin, I understand what you’re going through.’ I told her, ‘How old are you?’ She said, ‘I’m 27.’ I said, ‘Darling, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You don’t understand what I’m going through.’
“When very beginning, when Michael was arrested and he was in jail, I live on the second floor and every time somebody walks on the stairs, I was thinking it was him.
“That’s how mind is just playing games with me sometimes. There’s nothing changed for me. My husband is my life, and I decided even if he is going to spend the rest of his life in prison, we are going to build our life just around this. If he will be in prison, I will visit him. We will talk. We will write. There’s nothing can break connection I have with this man. This is impossible to break.”
She expresses condolence to the Upton family for having lost a loved one, but you can tell she firmly believes John Upton caused the confrontation that resulted in his death. She will never be persuaded otherwise.
Tamara has a visceral need to proclaim Michael’s innocence — that he was provoked and threatened, that he feared for his life, that he believed Upton’s cellphone was a gun and so his life was in danger. Michael, she is absolutely certain, was too decent and kind to commit such a heinous crime without fear and provocation.
“I don’t care what people think, because I know who Michael is, and I know his soul is clean.”
She wants the world to know all this, and to believe as she does. But the media is moving on, the lawyers have other cases, the jurors have returned to their jobs, and soon there will be no one to listen.
The love of a woman for a man is a thing both glorious and terrifying. It can make the heart beautiful, but can also put the burden of heavy stones on the spirit.
Upton’s family and friends would say the same things that Tamara is saying — that he was too decent and kind a man to die in a dusty field.
A good man is dead, and another’s life is in ruins.
There is something primeval about all this. What is it about a house or a plot of land that can turn neighbors into enemies? Every cop on patrol has stories of arguments mediated and fights stopped because of some boundary dispute, an untrimmed tree or a barking dog. And, yes, it can turn deadly.
The worst has happened, and Tamara’s life will never again be the same. Her soul bleeds from a wound she will never allow to heal. She is Michael’s wife. She loved him for better, now she will love him for worse.
“Horrible thing has happened in my life and I cannot fix it. I live in this nightmare for a long time.”
If you have no charity for this faithful wife, then your heart is too hard.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]