A Cortez jury found muzzleloader hunter Ronald J. Morosko guilty Wednesday on charges of criminal negligent homicide and hunting in a careless manner in the death of bowhunter Gregory Gabrisch.
The jury of two men and 10 women reported it had reached a unanimous verdict at 3:40 p.m. after beginning deliberations at the end of the day Tuesday. The four-day trial began Thursday.
Morosko and his attorneys stood as Chief Judge Todd Plewe read the guilty verdicts from the jury at 3:50 p.m. Morosko did not show a visible reaction.
He was sent to the probation office to begin the presentence investigation process. Morosko is free on bond until a sentencing hearing set for March 31 for 9:30 a.m.
The sentence for criminally negligent homicide, a Class 5 felony, is one to three years in prison, or probation. Probation can entail up to 90 days in jail. A fine of up to $100,000 may be imposed.
“We are thankful for service of the jury, we are pleased with the outcome, and the family is pleased with the outcome,” said District Attorney Matt Margeson who prosecuted the case along with Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Reed. “It has been a very difficult case for every individual involved and we are so pleased the jury came to the decision that they did.”
Margeson said he will work with the family on presenting a recommended sentence to Plewe, who decides on the sentence in 22nd Judicial District Court.
Defense attorney Kenneth Pace declined to comment Wednesday, reserving it for a later time. Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson, whose investigation was heavily criticized by the defense, also declined to comment.
Through Margeson, Gabrisch’s family released a statement saying they “were pleased with verdict.”
On Sept. 17, 2021, Morosko fatally shot Gabrisch as the two hunted for elk separately in the San Juan National Forest above the Kilpacker Trail north of Rico.
Morosko did not intend to shoot Gabrisch, and believed he was shooting at an elk.
During the trial, the prosecution argued Morosko failed to identify his target before firing, and did not follow hunter safety rules.
Defense attorneys argued the incident was a tragic accident, did not meet the legal standard of negligence, and faulted the law investigation as being possibly incomplete. They indicated the lack of orange requirement for bowhunters may have contributed to the accident.
The shooting occurred as both men hunted elk during overlapping muzzleloading and archery seasons in the Lizard Head Wilderness Area in Dolores County.
“Morosko failed to perceive the substantial danger in the woods, that other hunters are in it, doing the same thing, trying to call in elk,” Margeson said. “Morosko said he shot at an elk. Gabrisch is not an elk.”
The charge of negligence matches the available evidence in the case, he said.
Morosko violated hunting rules because “he did not identify his target, he hit what he was aiming at,” Margeson said.
Morosko should have known to watch out for other hunters because he had seen one earlier in the area, he said.
The prosecution was not convinced that Morosko even saw an elk when he shot, Margeson said, and that his statements indicated he could have mistaken Gabrisch’s camouflage hunting gear for one.
When Morosko’s hunting partner called in an elk and heard a call back, the two should have realized it could be another hunter calling in elk, a scenario hunting experts said can happen.
“It is unreasonable to assume no one else knows that trick,” of an elk call, Margeson said.
Margeson said the investigation could have been better, such as conducting a shooting reconstruction and finding the bullet, but the absence of those things had a minimal impact on the case.
The negligence took place when he did not identify his target, he said.
The defense argued the fatal shooting was a tragic accident that did not meet the legal standard of criminal negligence, defined as “the failure to perceive, through a gross deviation from the standard of reasonable care, a substantial and justifiable risk that death will result from your conduct.”
The overlap of archery and muzzleloader season and the fact that blaze orange clothing was not required for bowhunters appeared to be a contributor to the accident, the defense indicated. Gabrisch was not wearing blaze orange.
An incomplete investigation left out critical evidence, defense attorneys said, and showed reasonable doubt to find the defendant not guilty. For example the shooting scene was only investigated for less than two hours, and no shooting reconstruction was done.
Morosko is a very knowledgeable, prepared and safe hunter with more than 50 years of experience, Pace said, and all of that did not go away in an instant.
In statements to investigators, Morosko said that he counted the antler tips, watched the bull elk for 20 seconds before firing, and does not shoot at movement or colors as the prosecution implied.
Also, Morosko invoked his right to speak to a lawyer before talking with law enforcement, but they continued to interview him, Pace said.
Your right to remain silent and obtain a lawyer is to prevent law enforcement from asking questions to confirm a theory of what happened, a form of investigative bias that is not proper, Pace said.
“There should be no charge of a crime until a thorough investigation,” he said.
Witnesses described Morosko, of Pennsylvania, as a trophy hunter who traveled to Colorado to hunt often. Gabrisch was from Texas.
Stephanie Gabrisch continues to be devastated by the loss of her husband, said her father Steve Anderson, in a brief comment to The Journal.
“They were planning to buy a house and start a family,” he said. “It has been very tough for the family.”
This article will be updated after new information becomes available.