Ronald Morosko, a black powder hunter convicted of criminally negligent homicide and careless hunting in the 2021 shooting death of bowhunter Gregory Gabrisch, was sentenced Friday in Montezuma County Combined Courts in Cortez.
Chief Judge Todd Plewe handed down a 90-day jail sentence, plus 12 months’ state-supervised probation for the criminally negligent homicide conviction.
A $500 fine was issued for the careless hunting conviction, a misdemeanor. Morosko also must perform 100 hours of community service and may not hunt or fish during his probation.
As a convicted felon, Morosko is not allowed to legally possess firearms or ammunition, which prevents him from hunting with a gun. He previously had no criminal record.
Plewe said he will recommend to Colorado Parks and Wildlife that Morosko’s hunting and fishing privileges in Colorado and all compact states be suspended for life.
The emotionally charged sentencing hearing included dozens of people testifying for the victim and the defendant for more than three hours.
The day marked the end of a tense 19-month case. The investigation by the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office was criticized as insufficient, a mistrial was caused by a COVID outbreak in the Dolores County courtroom, a change of venue, and an intense debate centered on Colorado Parks and Widlife for permitting overlapping rifle and archer hunting seasons and maintaining a rule that bowhunters do not have to wear blaze orange clothing.
Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Reed recommended a two-year prison sentence plus probation. The maximum jail time for the criminally negligent homicide is three years in jail.
Plewe said there “was no excuse” for Morosko’s actions that killed Gabrisch, and that Morosko failed to follow basic hunter safety rules.
“Any hunter who violates these rules has been careless and or criminally negligent and must suffer the consequences,” Plewe said. “Hunting is inherently dangerous, and it is the hunter’s obligation to everyone to be safe. You, sir, were not sure of your target, what was in front of you.”
Before the January trial, Plewe rejected a proposed plea agreement by the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office that did not include jail time.
“Jail time is appropriate,” Plewe said, in explaining why he rejected the plea. “I sense Mr. Morosko that you have true remorse, sadness, that you feel sorry for what you have done, but I am concerned that you’re not fully accepting responsibility.”
Gabrisch’s family and friends talked about the heavy toll his death has caused, and the tragic loss of life of a young man in his prime.
They were dismayed that Morosko and his hunting partner, Slade Pepke, left Gabrisch’s body on the mountain and questioned why Morosko did not call 911 when he passed through Rico, where cell service was available. He instead waited to call at the Green Snow Oasis farther down the road.
They recalled Gabrisch’s love of the outdoors, upbeat personality, multiple talents and devotion to his wife and family.
Gabrisch’s wife, Stephanie Gabrisch, testified that she lost her best friend and love of her life.
She said her late husband “was the best thing that ever happened to me” and that carrying on without him has been difficult.
The couple had been eager to start a family and buy a home together, but the fatal shooting ended the dream.
“Now I do not get to have a child with the love of my life,” Stephanie Gabrisch said. “My life is in disarray, my soul feels diminished, and my heart feels gone.”
Her husband was the last man in his family with the opportunity to carry on the family name, she said.
“I could not wait to see him become a father,” Gabrisch said.
She asked the court to impose the maximum sentence of three years behind bars.
“I would have preferred the maximum,” she said after the sentencing hearing. “I don’t think (Morosko) takes responsibility. I was pleased with the verdict.”
Having to go through two trials added to the burden, Gabrisch said, and all the travel from her home in Houston hurt her financially because she had to take unpaid leave. She works as a schoolteacher.
Leaning on her family and friends “kept me strong. I could not have survived without them,” she said.
Greg Cozad, Gabrisch’s hunting partner that day, testified about his best friend of 20 years.
The two grew up together and went hunting and fishing often.
On the tragic day, they hiked into the woods, then split up to cover more ground. They planned to meet at camp for lunch.
Cozad returned and noticed rescue crews gathering at the Kilpacker trailhead. He learned a hunter had been fatally shot in the area Gabrisch planned to hunt.
They found the backpack that matched the description of Gabrisch’s, “and it became apparent that it was Greg who had been shot and killed,” he said.
The waiting during the mountain search and not being able to call anyone was the “loneliest and saddest day of my life,” Cozad said. “Seeing your best friend in a body bag is not something anyone should see, and it will stick with me forever.”
He drove Gabrisch’s truck to Rico and called Gabrisch’s wife.
Cozad said his friend was the kind of person everyone wanted to be around. When Morosko shot him, “it ruined many people’s lives.”
Morosko’s family and friends testified about his conscientious approach to hunting and safe record prior to the fatal shooting. They described Morosko as responsible and caring, adding that since the killing, he no longer enjoyed life.
Morosko read a statement at the hearing.
“Since the day this accident happened, I’ve wanted to tell the Gabrisch family how deeply sorry I am for their loss,” Morosko said. “I relive that day over and over in my mind trying to figure out how Mr. Gabrisch got between me and the elk without me seeing him. I wish I had seen him.”
He said he thinks about the incident every day, feels lost and can’t sleep.
“I wish to tell the (Gabrisch) family when I came off the mountain, I got to a phone as quick as I could and called 911. I wanted them to find their son,” Morosko said.
Plewe rejected claims that the incident was an accident and noted the jury’s conviction of criminal negligence means jurors also did not believe it was an accident.
Defense attorney Kenneth Pace stated that Morosko’s conviction will be appealed. He asked Plewe to stay the sentence and release Morosko on an appellate bond while the appeal played out.
Pace said the appeal is based on legitimate issues including qualifications of experts in the trial.
Plewe rejected the request for a sentence stay and appellate bond and ordered Morosko be taken into custody. Morosko was handcuffed by court security and led out of the courtroom.
He will serve his sentence at the Montezuma County Detention Center in Cortez.
The fatal shooting happened in Dolores County near the Kilpacker Trail on the San Juan National Forest on Sept. 17, 2021, north of Rico.
Morosko shot Gabrisch as the two hunted elk in the area separately. The muzzleloading season and bowhunting season overlap in Colorado for eight days in September.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife hunting laws do not require bowhunters to wear fluorescent orange or pink.
All rifle hunters are required to wear at least 500 square inches of solid fluorescent orange or pink above the waist and part of it must be a hat or head covering.
Morosko and his hunting partner were wearing blaze orange and Gabrisch was not when the fatal shooting occurred.
In January 2022, CPW staff made a policy recommendation to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission that would have required archery hunters to wear fluorescent orange or pin during the overlapping muzzleloader season in September. The fatal shooting of Gabrisch created a push for the rule adjustment.
But the policy recommendation was rejected by the commission, which cited strong opposition in the bowhunting community. Many bowhunters said they prefer to not where blaze orange in order to keep cover at close range of their prey, essential for taking an ethical and accurate shot that kills the animal.
The first trial in the case began Oct. 24 in Dolores County Court in Dove Creek. A mistrial was declared seven days into the trial because of a COVID outbreak that sickened three jurors, an attorney and courtroom staff. The prosecution had rested its case, and the defense had just begun presenting its case but was cut short by the mistrial.
A change of venue to Montezuma County Combined Courts was granted, and the case was retried with a new jury.