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Trial in fatal shooting of bowhunter begins in Dove Creek

22nd Judicial District Attorney Matt Margeson gives opening statements to a jury in Dove Creek for a criminal trial involving a muzzleloading hunter who fatally shot a bowhunter in 2021 in the San Juan National Forest. (WebEx screenshot)
Prosecutor focuses on rifle hunter’s mistakes; defender faults investigation

Ronald Morosko made “numerous fundamental errors” when he fatally shot bowhunter Gregory Gabrisch during a muzzleloading rifle hunt in 2021, said District Attorney Matt Margeson during opening statements in a trial Wednesday in Dove Creek.

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

Defense lawyer Heather Little faulted the investigation and argued that Morosko’s actions were not criminal.

The shooting occurred as both men hunted elk during overlapping muzzleloading and archery seasons Sept. 17, 2021, near the Kilpacker Trail in the San Juan National Forest northeast of Dolores.

Law enforcement and other interviews in the 22nd Judicial District case will show Morosko mistook Gabrisch’s elk call for that of an approaching elk, Margeson told the jury. Morosko also said he heard banging and scraping on trees, but it was Gabrisch simulating the sound to draw in an elk.

Ronald J. Morosko
The trial of Ronald Morosko, charged with fatally shooting a bowhunter, started this week in Dove Creek. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

It is true that Morosko said he saw “brown and white” colors of an elk before firing his rifle, Margeson said, but it was Gabrisch, who was dressed in camouflage. The flash of white came from the arrows, and the brown was a binoculars case and clothing, Margeson said.

Morosko was so sure that he hit an elk that he reloaded.

“He called out, ‘I got him,’” Margeson said. “He was aiming at Gabrisch, he hit was he was aiming at,” mistaking the man for an elk.

Margeson said Morosko told investigating officers, “I wouldn’t have shot if I did not think it was an elk.”

“He does not say, ‘saw an elk, shot an elk,’” Margeson said.

Margeson said evidence will show Morosko knew the archery and muzzleloader seasons overlapped, that bowhunters were not required to wear blaze orange, and that bowhunters were in the area.

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 that story changed to, ‘We had a big bull between us,’” Margeson said.

Later in the 911 call, Morosko indicated he was unsure what happened, Margeson said.

“This version is different from what he tells officers later when they arrive on scene,” Margeson said.

Defense faults investigation

“Not all tragedy is linked to criminal liability, not all tragedy is carelessness,” said Morosko’s defense attorney, Heather Little, in an opening statement.

She said evidence will show Morosko is an experienced hunter with 55 years of experience and that he practices hunter safety and identifies his target.

Even with proper precautions, “an accident can still occur,” Little said, and in this case, it is not criminal.

She said evidence will show the incident does not meet the legal definition of criminal negligence in Colorado of a “gross deviation from standard of care a reasonable person would exercise,” and that there is “reasonable doubt” that the incident meets the standard.

Little said Morosko identified his target, an elk with a five-by-five rack, then he aimed and took a shot. He did not “grossly deviate from the standard of care.”

“Morosko said he did see an elk, swore he saw an elk,” she said.

She said it was improper for law enforcement to talk with Morosko after he told them his son advised him to get a lawyer before talking to them.

A defense psychology expert will testify that after a stressful event, a person will have difficulty communicating information because of the shock and stress, Little said.

Little said the investigation at the scene lasted just 1½ hours, there was no follow-up investigation at the scene and that a shooting analysis was not conducted.

Expert witnesses will testify the investigation was “flawed and failed to capture critical evidence” consistent with an accident, Little said.

The facts that bowhunters are not required to wear blaze orange and that the muzzleloading and archery seasons overlapped contributed to the accident, Little said. Gabrisch did not wear blaze orange.

The evidence that investigators failed to collect undermines the prosecution’s theory, Little said. It is prosecutors’ job to answer important questions in the case that have gone unanswered.

The prosecution’s case is “speculative, and the lack of evidence is the reasonable doubt” that is needed to acquit Morosko of the charges, Little said.

Morosko faces a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide and a misdemeanor charge of hunting in a careless manner. He has pleaded not guilty.

Opening statements in the case were heard Wednesday in front of a 13-person jury at Dolores County Court.

The trial is expected to last until Tuesday and is being overseen by Chief Judge Todd Plewe of the 22nd Judicial District.

The jury is made up of eight men and five women. Some have hunting experience, and one is a teacher at the Dolores School District RE-4A. The trial is open to the public and is being broadcast live through a WebEx link on the 22nd Judicial District webpage.

Multiple witnesses took the stand Tuesday for questioning by the prosecution and the defense.

They included Dolores County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Braiden Banks; Colorado Bureau of Investigation officials Matt Richardson and Briana Meredith; Dolores County Coroner Aaron Hankins; Southwest Colorado Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Arnall and George Pepke, a friend of Morosko’s.

According to an arrest affidavit, Morosko and hunting partner Slade M. Pepke of Pennsylvania were black powder hunting Sept. 17 in the area of the Kilpacker Trail when Morosko shot Gabrisch of Houston.

The affidavit states Morosko was hunting with a .50-caliber black powder rifle about 8:30 a.m. while Pepke used a call to lure elk to within shooting range. The device mimics the sound a bull elk would make when challenging other bulls or when trying to find a cow elk. Morosko and Pepke both wore hunter orange.

Pepke reported that several bulls answered his call and were making a lot of noise, according to the affidavit. He directed Morosko to set up in a tree area and wait for the bull elk to approach.

Pepke said he continued to call the bull closer and heard the bull scream and make loud scraping noises while moving toward Morosko.

“The elk were going crazy,” he told investigators.