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Day 2: Prosecutors present case that Morosko mistook bowhunter for elk

Slade Pepke is sworn in as a witness by Chief Judge Todd Plewe during the Ronald Morosko hunting trial Friday in Cortez. Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Reed is standing in the foreground. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Defense cites statements by Morosko that he and partner saw an elk

On the second day of the trial for hunter Ronald Morosko, the prosecution used witness and expert testimony to establish that he mistook bowhunter Gregory Gabrisch for an elk, and fatally shot him with a muzzleloader rifle while the two hunted in the deep woods north of Rico.

In cross-examination, Morosko’s defense team, Heather Little and Kenneth Pace, countered that witness testimony shows Morosko is an experienced hunter who saw and shot at an elk, and that the prosecution was relying on witness speculation.

Prosecutors asserted that Morosko did not properly identify his target before shooting, while defense argued that hitting Gabrisch was an accident in part because he did not wear blaze orange, which is not required for bowhunters.

Morosko is charged with criminal negligent homicide and hunting in a careless manner in the shooting death of Gabrisch while the two hunted separately in the San Juan National Forest north of Rico on Sept. 17, 2021.

Ronald J. Morosko, of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania
CBI investigator Matt Richardson testifies about a photograph of a shooting scene during the Ronald Morosko hunting trial in Cortez Thursday. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Attorneys in the Ronald Morosko hunting trial confer with Chief Judge Todd Plewe Tuesday. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Morosko has pleaded not guilty on both charges.

District Attorney Matt Margeson and Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Reed relied on law enforcement interviews, video taken by Gabrisch of himself at the scene, and photographs and statements by Morosko and his hunting party to support its case of criminally negligent homicide and careless hunting.

The prosecution called to the stand Morosko’s hunting partners George Pepke and Slade Pepke, along with expert witnesses CBI analyst Briana Meredith, CBI agent Joe Farmer, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Matt Sturdevant.

Testimony was also read verbatim from transcripts of CPW agent Jason Trousdale, who took the stand during the first trial, which ended in a mistrial in October.

A highlight of the trial was testimony from Morosko’s hunting partner Slade Pepke, who was present when Morosko took the fatal shot.

Pepke was helping Morosko by using an elk bugle to try and lure a bull elk toward his hunting partner. Pepke was not hunting that day because he had already filled his tag.

During questioning by prosecutor Reed, Pepke said the two were hunting in an area of dark timber with reduced visibility.

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Pepke said he had seen a bull elk 20 to 30 minutes before in the vicinity, and 40 to 50 in the area the day before. He had positioned himself 75 yards away from Morosko and used the elk call to draw in a bull for his partner to shoot.

Pepke said the two were aware that bowhunting and muzzleloading seasons overlapped during that time, and that bowhunters are not required to wear blaze orange.

Pepke said he heard an elk call in response to his calls along with knocking.

A video by Gabrisch he took of himself hunting nearby shows him also calling for elk and scraping a tree to simulate bull elk behavior.

Prosecutors suggested that Gabrisch and Pepke might have been responding to each other’s’ elk calls.

Morosko fired a shot and stated, “I got him,” Pepke stated, who added he did not see the elk being shot at.

When Morosko went to check, he told Pepke, “I think I shot somebody,” Pepke said.

Gabrisch was shot in the chest and died within moments. He was wearing camouflage and was not wearing blaze orange.

“I was in shock, I just stood there dumbfounded,” Pepke said when he heard Morosko’s report of what happened.

Pepke took a GPS reading of where he stood, then he and Morosko decided to leave the body and hike back down the mountain to the Kilpacker Trailhead then drive out to call and report the situation.

According to a law enforcement interview, Slade recalled that on the hike down the mountain, Morosko stated that he had “messed up” and was scared about what would happen.

After arriving at the Green Snow Cabins south of Rico, Morosko used a landline to contact 911 and reported the incident.

During cross-examination by Pace, Slade said that although the woods were thick, they could still see, and that there was ample open space to take a shot. Pepke said the two had been using binoculars to scan for elk in the area and saw elk, but did not see any other hunters.

Morosko has a long history of being a safe hunter and following all the rules, Pepke said, who has hunted with him 40 times. He takes time to identify his target, and often passes on shooting an elk if it is not the trophy bull he is looking for, according to his testimony. Morosko does not get upset when he does not fill his tag, Pepke said.

Pepke agreed with Pace that a hunter in camouflage not wearing blaze orange is tougher to see and identify.

Pepke indicated he believed he was luring the bull elk he had seen nearby 20 to 30 minutes earlier toward Morosko.

Prosecutors also focused on witness testimony from George Pepke, Slade Pepke’s father, who was waiting in the truck at the Kilpacker trailhead for the hunters to return.

On the drive down, Morosko informed George Pepke what had happened.

He said “he had seen an elk and shot, then saw a guy dead,” Pepke stated on the witness stand under questioning from Margeson.

During an interview with law enforcement later that day, George Pepke said Morosko told him he “saw brown and a horn.”

Prosecutors surmised the brown and horn could have been the Gabrisch’s bow and brown binocular case, and that the white fletching of the arrows could have been mistaken for the white tips of antlers.

During cross-examination, Pace pointed out that the prosecution left out Morosko’s comments to George Slade that he “swore on my life I saw an elk” before taking the shot.

The five-day trial will resume Monday. Closing arguments will take place either Tuesday or Wednesday, then the jury will begin deliberations.