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Arrest affidavit reveals details of fatal hunting incident in Dolores County

A fatal hunting incident occurred Friday on the Kilpacker Basin Trail in the San Juan National Forest. (Courtesy photo)
Pennsylvania man faces charge of criminally negligent homicide

An arrest affidavit reveals that two hunters from Pennsylvania were calling in an elk Friday morning in the San Juan National Forest north of Rico, Colorado, when one mistook a bow hunter for their prey and fatally shot him.

Gregory Gabrisch, 31, of Houston, died from a gunshot wound in the area of the Kilpacker Trail off Forest Road 535, according to court records and a Dolores County Sheriff’s Office.

Ronald J. Morosko, of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, was arrested by the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office on suspicion of criminally negligent homicide, a Class 5 felony.

An arrest affidavit alleges Morosko and hunting partner Slade M. Pepke, also of Pennsylvania, were black powder rifle hunting when Morosko allegedly shot Gabrisch, who was archery hunting.

Morosko, 67, was jailed in the Montezuma County Detention Center on Friday and released Saturday, said Heather Mann, records manager of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.

He posted a $10,000 cash or surety bond and appeared in Dolores Combined Court for arraignment Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

Ronald J. Morosko, of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania
How it happened: Suspect, hunting partner talk

An arrest affidavit for Morosko released Monday by the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office shed light on the circumstances of the shooting incident.

The affidavit states Morosko was hunting with a .50 caliber black powder rifle about 8:30 a.m. Friday.

Jun 29, 2022
Bow hunter fatally shot in San Juan National Forest
Jun 29, 2022
Update: Pennsylvania man faces charge after allegedly shooting bow hunter near Rico, Colorado

Pepke was using an elk calling unit to lure in elk so they would be in range to shoot. The device mimics the sound a bull elk would make when challenging other bulls or when trying to find a cow elk. Both black powder rifle hunters wore hunter orange.

Pepke reported that several bulls answered his call and they were making a lot of noise, according to the affidavit. He directed Morosko to set up in a tree area and wait for the bull elk to approach.

Pepke said he continued to call the bull closer and heard the bull scream and make loud scraping noises while moving toward Morosko.

“The elk were going crazy,” he told investigators.

Morosko told deputies from Montezuma and Dolores counties sheriff offices that he heard an elk bugle and scream and believed a bull elk was coming his way.

“When he saw white in the pines, he took a shot at what he thought was an elk,” according to the affidavit written by Sheriff Don Wilson.

Morosko reloaded, thinking he had shot an elk. But when he checked, he saw that he had shot and killed an archery hunter.

Morosko said the archery hunter was wearing dark brown camouflage, not hunter orange.

Bow hunters are not required to wear daylight fluorescent orange clothing during the bow hunting season, according to Colorado law.

In the affidavit, Sheriff Don Wilson states that “basic hunting knowledge (is) to identify what your target is and beyond before shooting the gun. Ronald Morosko did fall below the standard of care by failing to property identify his target, resulting in the shooting of a person.”

According to the affidavit, based on the facts and circumstances, probable cause exists that evidence of criminal negligent homicide occurred, a Class 5 felony.

Not wearing fluorescent orange is a preference among bow hunters, because it breaks up the camouflage pattern needed to get close to game.

CPW strongly recommends wearing daylight fluorescent orange or florescent pink clothes in the field even if you’re not hunting.

There has been some overlap between archery and rifle seasons for many years, according to CPW.

A man was fatally shot in a hunting accident that occured in the San Juan National Forest Friday in the area of the Kilpacker Trail north of Rico.
Hunter education

"This is a tragic incident, and CPW will support the Dolores County Sheriff's Office with its investigation in any way possible,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest office in a statement released Monday.

Following hunter education protocols is essential when hunting, said John Livingston, CPW’s Southwest Region public information officer.

“A key principal of hunter education is to be sure of your target and what is beyond it before you aim or take a shot. If not 100% sure, do not aim or take the shot,” he said.

Also, a hunter must clearly identify his target based on a hunting tag specific to animal type, age and gender.

It was the first hunting incident in CPW’s Southwest region this hunting season, Livingston said.

According to CPW data, between 2010 and 2020, there was an average of about one fatal hunting incident per year, and 4.4 nonfatal incidents per year.

Since hunting education became a law in the 1970s in Colorado, nonfatal injuries and fatalities have dropped significantly.

In 1970, three laws went into effect in Colorado:

  • Hunter education for anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1949.
  • During regular rifle seasons hunters must wear daylight fluorescent orange, 500 square inches above the waist and something visible from all sides on the head.
  • No loaded firearms in motor vehicles.

In the 20 years after hunter education laws were enacted, total average incidents were down 57%, according to CPW.

In the 1960s, the state averaged 10 hunting fatalities and 24 nonfatal injuries per year in Colorado.

Between 1970 and 1980, fatalities dropped to 4.5 per year, and nonfatal injuries fell to 18.6 per year.

In the 1990s, there were 1.3 fatal incidents per year, and 11 nonfatal incidents. Since 2000, there was one fatal incident per year and 8.7 nonfatal incidents per year.

More than 500,000 hunters take to the field in Colorado annually. The previous hunting fatality occurred Nov. 9, 2020, in Grand County. Before then, it was Nov. 5, 2018, also in Grand County, according to CPW.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the International Hunter Education Association – USA defines a hunting incident as:

1. An incident resulting from the discharge of a firearm or bow while hunting, which causes the injury or death of any person(s).

2. An incident while hunting, not involving the discharge of a firearm or bow, which causes the injury or death of any person(s) (i.e. cutting oneself while field dressing animal, cutting yourself with a broadhead, etc.).

3. Any other incident resulting from the discharge of a firearm or bow, which causes the injury or death of any person(s), other than while hunting (i.e. target practicing in camp, cleaning a firearm in camp, etc.).

CPW uses the term “incident” as opposed to “accident” because not all cases are determined accidental, or “unforeseen,” events.

Morosko appears in Dolores County court

Morosko had his first court appearance Tuesday morning in front of Dolores County Court Judge Nathaniel Baca at the courthouse in Dove Creek.

His public defender, Kenneth Pace, said the incident “appears to be a tragic accident” and that Morosko has no significant criminal history.

Morosko had earlier posted bond and was released from jail. He appeared in court in person. Pace requested that Morosko be granted permission to travel to and from Pennsylvania while on bond. A waiver of extradition has been signed by the bondsman.

Pace said Morosko’s son has agreed to remove all firearms and ammunition from Morosko’s home.

Baca granted permission for Morosko to travel to and from Pennsylvania while on bond. As a condition of bond, Morosko is not allowed to posses any guns or ammunition and they must be removed from his home.

Prosecutor Jeremy Reed did not object to defense request for travel to Pennsylvania and said the bond condition preventing possession of guns or ammunition was appropriate.

Baca granted permission for Morosko to attend his next court date for filing of charges virtually via WebEx. Pace requested that Morosko attend all non-evidentiary hearings via WebEx.

Baca did not approve the request. After each court hearing, the court will determine if the next one will allow Morosko to attend via WebEx, Baca said.

Members of the Gabrisch family attended the court hearing via phone and WebEx.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com