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New trial begins in Cortez after mistrial in fatal hunting case

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)
Texas bowhunter was fatally shot by a muzzleloader hunter from Pennsylvania in San Juan National Forest

The first day of the Cortez trial of hunter Ronald Morosko Thursday was mostly a rerun of last year’s trial, which ended in a mistrial Oct. 31 after six days.

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

Morosko has pleaded not guilty on both charges.

Opening statements were made by District Attorney Matt Margeson and defense attorney Heather Little, then several witnesses were called to the stand by the prosecution.

Morosko did not intend to shoot the other hunter, but his actions were criminally negligent, Margeson said in opening statements.

In her opening statement, Little faulted the investigation and argued that Morosko’s actions did not meet the legal definition of a crime, and that the fatal shooting was an accident.

The prosecution began with its case. The witnesses they called to testify were Dolores Sheriff Deputy Lt. Braiden Banks, Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent Matt Richardson, CBI Agent in Charge Collin Reese and Medical Examiner Michael Arnall.

Defense attorney Heather Little questions a witness during the Ronald Morosko trial Thursday in Montezuma County Combined Courts in Cortez. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Reed returns to court following a break in the Ronald Morosko hunter trial that began this week at the Montezuma County Combined Courts in Cortez. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Margeson and Deputy DA Jeremy Reed presented evidence and witness testimony to show Morosko mistook Gabrisch for an elk then fatally shot him.

In cross-examination, defense attorneys Little and Kenneth Pace challenged those claims and presented evidence to show Morosko, an experienced hunter, saw and shot at an elk.

Margeson said that according to a 911 call, Morosko said a bowhunter “tried to sneak in on us” and that it was an accident.

Then the story changed – a bull elk got between Gabrisch and Morosko, Margeson said.

Little countered that Morosko stated that he did see an elk with a five-by-five rack, aimed and took a shot, and did not grossly deviate from the standard of care defined under the law.

The jury was shown video from Banks’ body camera during the initial interview with Morosko, dozens of photos of the crime scene taken by Richardson, audio of the Morosko’s 911 call, and autopsy photos.

Morosko’s hunting partner, Slade Pepke, used an artificial elk bugle to call in elk for Morosko, and said he heard elk bugling back from different directions.

Pepke said he saw an elk heading Morosko’s way before the shot was made, the defense said, and that the hunters heard the scraping of elk antlers on a tree.

The prosecution argued the bugle and scraping Pepke and Morosko heard was coming from Gabrisch positioned nearby.

They showed video that Gabrisch took of himself during the hunt minutes before being shot. It showed him calling in elk with a bugle and scratching a tree to simulate an elk in an attempt to draw one in.

Other highlights of the first day of the trial arguments were:

  • In a text to his son after the incident, Morosko writes: “I shot an elk, I know I did.” Later in the text, Morosko indicates Gabrisch was on the “other side” of the elk.
  • Medical examiner Michael Arnall admitted to a mistake in his autopsy report regarding the location of the exit wound of the bullet through Gabrisch. The initial reports indicated the exit wound was higher than it actually was. During previous testimony, Arnall stated the bullet passed in an upward motion from the front to the back based on the inaccuracy. Arnall presented photographs, including ones with a tape measure and a directional rod that showed the correct location of the exit wound, he said. The directional rod that went through the entry and exit wounds shows the accurate downward trajectory of the bullet. Little challenged the veracity of the tape measure photo, arguing there is no photograph of where it the tape measure begins.
  • A helicopter was used to deliver investigators to the remote shooting scene located in the Lizard Head Wilderness to investigate the scene and recover the body. According to court testimony, the action was in violation of a cease-and-desist order by the San Juan National Forest prohibiting the helicopter, which is not allowed in wilderness areas. Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson ordered the helicopter be used despite the order against it, said Reese of the CBI. Reese stated he agreed that use of the helicopter was necessary.