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Day 3: Morosko defense asserts faulty investigation of fatal hunting shooting

Defense Attorney Kenneth Pace prepares to question defense witness Michael Van Durme, an expert in hunter shooting incidents. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Psychologist testifies defendant’s mental ability was impaired after traumatic shooting incident

On the third day of the trial for hunter Ronald Morosko, defense attorneys argued that law enforcement officers failed to conduct an adequate investigation into what happened when Morosko fatally shot bowhunter Gregory Gabrisch in the mountains north of Rico.

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 on Sept. 17, 2021.

Morosko pleaded not guilty on both charges.

Prosecutors rested their case Monday morning after questioning Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson and Dolores County Coroner Aaron Hankins.

District Attorney Matt Margeson sought to establish that Wilson conducted an effective investigation and had adequate evidence for an arrest affidavit.

In cross-examination, defense attorney Heather Little criticized Wilson’s investigation for being insufficient.

In presenting their case, defense attorneys Kenneth Pace and Little called witnesses and experts to back up their assertion of a failed investigation and to consider Morosko’s mental state during questioning about the traumatic experience. Morosko’s son and two hunting partners also were called to the stand to vouch for Morosko’s safe hunting record.

Ronald Morosko is the defendant in a trial about a fatal hunting incident. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Defense attorney Heather Little questions Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson, right, during the Ronald Morosko hunting trial Monday in Cortez. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Witnesses called for the defense were psychologist Rita Baker; criminal defense expert Joel Fry; Morosko’s son, Ronald Morosko Jr.; hunting investigation expert Michael Van Durme; and the defendant’s hunting partners, Anthony Michaels and Thomas Paisinski.

During questioning by Margeson, Wilson said he sent two investigators to two locations and contacted the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for assistance, which sent three investigators. He reviewed body camera interviews before submitting an affidavit for Morosko’s arrest for criminal negligence, which was signed by then-Dolores County Judge Anthony Nathaniel Baca. Since then, Baca has been sworn in as a district court judge for the 6th Judicial District.

In cross-examination, Little sought to establish the investigation was inadequate. She pointed out that Wilson did not send an investigator to the scene of the shooting and that he declined further assistance that the CBI offered. The CBI is a request-only investigative unit, and Wilson did not give jurisdiction to the CBI to take over the case.

On the day of the shooting, one CBI investigator spent 1 hour and 20 minutes at the shooting location, then ran out of time because the sun was setting. Little pointed out that Morosko’s hunting partner agreed to return to the scene with officers the next day, but the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office did not take the offer.

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Wilson stated during questioning by Little that five to six hours was needed to investigate the shooting scene. However, far less than that occurred.

During witness questioning, Little established that no law enforcement official has returned to the scene since the incident, and no shooting reconstruction was conducted.

During testimony, psychologist Rita Baker said the shooting was a traumatic event for Morosko that affected his mental ability to initially describe what happened. Upon an examination of Morosko, she concluded he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the event. Baker cited information that a person experienced trauma will be confused immediately after the event and have trouble explaining and remembering what happened or forming organized thoughts.

In a review of the case, she said that during Morosko’s interviews with law enforcement – where he made statements interpreted by the prosecution as incriminating – he showed signs of confusion and lack of organized thought consistent with mental trauma.

During cross-examination, Margeson noted that around the time of the law enforcement interviews Morosko asked law enforcement if he could go put on his blaze orange before they took pictures of him so it was an accurate depiction of what he was wearing during the shooting.

Margeson asked Baker whether that action showed organized thought, and Baker said she did not think it did.

Van Durme, expert witness for the defense, testified that the investigation was inadequate.

Van Durme is the manager of a shooting and hunting consulting firm and an expert in shooting incident reconstruction for hunting incidents.

During questioning by defense attorney Pace, Van Durme explained that it would have been possible for a shooting reconstruction to take place at the scene, but it was not done.

If law enforcement had taken Slade Pepke’s offer to return to the scene the next day, investigators could have worked out where everyone was located, and then begin an process to determine shooting direction and visibility, Van Durme said.

Van Durme said a metal detector could have helped to find the bullet that would have added to needed information, but one was not used by the CBI investigator, who was the only law enforcement officer that went to the scene.

Van Durme also pointed out that additional investigation could have determined exactly where Morosko shot from in relation to the Gabrisch’s body because Morosko used a gun stand when he took the shot, and the stand may have left impressions in the ground.

Two hunting partners of Morosko, along with his son, testified to his long record of safe hunting practices.

Trial schedule

Morosko has not testified in the trial, and has informed the court that he was reserving the right to do so. If he decided to testify, he must do so before the defense rests, which is expected to be Tuesday.

Closing arguments are planned for Wednesday morning, then the case will go to the jury for deliberation.