Update: Michael J. Browning was indicted by a grand jury on Oct. 24 on charges that he raped and sexually assaulted two women, both former employees. Browning was suspended from his state government job amid an internal investigation and retired. In April, a Baltimore County jury acquitted Browning of rape and assault charges but convicted him of a fourth-degree sexual offense. He was required to register as a sex offender.

They call it “The Kingdom,” and for three decades, Michael J. Browning was the king.

Since 1991, Browning has presided over Gunpowder Falls State Park, 18,000 acres of woodlands and meadows, beaches and boating areas and historic sites in Baltimore and Harford counties. He raced through the park on his motorcycle, crowning favorites, tormenting those who challenged him and violating state park policy, former employees say. Now Browning, 71, is in jail in Baltimore County, awaiting trial on charges that he raped and sexually assaulted a young woman who worked for him on state property. Browning denies the charges.

The Baltimore Banner spoke with 15 current and former employees of the Maryland Park Service and Maryland Natural Resources Police, most of whom worked at Gunpowder over the past decade, and many of whom asked not to be identified due to fear of retaliation. The Banner also reviewed eight written accounts that workers sent to supervisors and state investigators during that period that detail alleged misconduct by Browning and his assistant park manager. Together, the workers and documents paint a portrait of a toxic work environment, rife with bullying, intimidation and favoritism. Again and again, workers complained to supervisors about violations of state park policy, yet Browning remained the park manager. Workers who challenged Browning lost their park housing and state vehicles, were reassigned to demeaning or impossible tasks and were passed over for promotion, former employees said.

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“Mike ran a fiefdom,” one former Gunpowder employee said of Browning. “He was king of The Kingdom, Gunpowder Falls State Park.”

“It was a really great place to work until it wasn’t, and then it was horrible. It was the hunter and the hunted,” said a former ranger, Lindley Austin. “You were in or you were out. If you challenged them, they would make your life miserable.”

Former Gunpowder employees expressed frustration that they had emailed complaints about Browning to senior park service officials in 2015, yet nothing appeared to change. “This damage has been done to so many people,” said Nicholas Behe, another former Gunpowder employee. “It really tarnished my idea of justice.”

As the lone remaining holdover from a program in which Maryland park rangers were law enforcement officers, Browning had a state-issued badge and gun. Because of his law enforcement status, he earns $153,000 a year. He has worked for the state park service for 50 years and managed Gunpowder since 1991 — before his alleged victim was born.

The Department of Natural Resources declined to say whether Browning is still employed by the agency, citing personnel privacy. The department also declined to address or acknowledge specific allegations of misconduct by Browning and the assistant park manager, Dean Hughes.

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“Appropriate administrative actions have been taken in accordance with the Police Accountability Act and applicable State regulations,” spokesman Gregg Bortz wrote in an email.

“DNR Human Resource Services continues to investigate issues that have been raised and encourages any employee or other individuals to come forward with additional information,” Bortz wrote. “The department cannot discuss internal employee matters but assures both staff and the public that serious allegations brought to the department’s attention will be addressed.”

Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina was unavailable for an interview, the spokesman said. Former Gunpowder employees said they had reached out directly to Settina to share their complaints in the past.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the governor was deferring to the Natural Resources Department. “We support whatever steps and actions that the department deems necessary to uphold its policies,” spokesman Michael Ricci wrote in an email.

Michael Browning served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Michael Browning has served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park. (Baltimore County police)

Browning was arrested on Sept. 27 and charged with 21 counts of rape, sexual assault and assault. The alleged victim, according to court documents filed by Baltimore County police investigators, was a park employee who first met Browning when she was a teenager taking part in a 4-H program led by Browning’s wife in their home in Baldwin, a state-owned property.

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In 2016, police allege in court documents, Browning hired the woman, who was then in her early 20s, as a seasonal employee and moved her into a state-owned house located on the Days Cove portion of the park, near White Marsh. Despite a more-than-40-year age gap, the pair began what prosecutors describe as a consensual sexual relationship.

Browning would show up at the woman’s home several times a day looking for sex “to the point of it being an obsession,” police said in court filings, and the pair often had sex four or five times a day. The house is located behind a locked gate near a dump, and Browning, who had keys to both the gate and the house, would often arrive at the woman’s house early in the morning, before she had gotten out of bed, police said.

On multiple occasions, when the woman refused sex and pulled up the covers around her, Browning ripped away the sheets and her clothing, pinned her down and forcibly raped her, police said. The woman told investigators that this happened 10 to 15 times over the course of their six-year relationship, both at Browning’s home in Baldwin and at the Days Cove property, 11 miles away, where the young woman lived alone.

Police allege that Browning admitted to the rapes during a secretly taped phone call with the victim while investigators were present. According to court documents, Browning replied: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Forgive me for that. It will never happen again. I promise you it will never happen again.”

At a bail review hearing late last month, Browning’s attorney, Gary Bernstein, said he “vehemently” disagreed with the charges and maintained that his client was innocent. “He said this did not happen,” Bernstein said. “He said, ‘She’s a nice girl. I don’t know why she is doing this.’ ”

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In a phone interview last week, Bernstein declined to comment on the accusations that Browning had long abused his power at the park and fostered a culture of bullying and intimidation. “He’s in jail,” said Bernstein. “This is the least of his worries, about people complaining about what he was like as a boss. None of this has anything to do with the case. It’s a smear on him, but it doesn’t say whether he’s a rapist or not.”

The Banner also attempted to reach Browning directly by calling the detention center and emailing the supervisor for the pretrial division, but received no reply.

Bernstein said he had spoken to many current and former employees who were supportive of Browning. “I’ve talked to people who have worked there, who are currently working there or who have retired and they love him,” he said. “Current and former employees have all lined up behind him.”

Bernstein said he had spent the day reviewing photos of Browning and the alleged victim. He said they had traveled to Colorado together to hunt bears in early September. Photos captured them riding horseback and huddling in a tent together, he said. “She’s sitting on a horse next to him,” he said. “She’s got the biggest smile on her face, like she won the lottery.”

He also said that Browning had accompanied the alleged victim last month, at her request, when she broke up with someone she had been dating.

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Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Joe Dominick said at last month’s hearing that an additional victim had come forward, but provided no additional details.

The Banner does not identify victims of alleged rape or sexual assault unless they ask to be named or identify themselves publicly. Attempts to reach the woman, who no longer works for the park service, have been unsuccessful.

Gunpowder Falls State Park
Gunpowder Falls State Park (Julie Scharper/The Baltimore Banner)

Several former Gunpowder employees said they often saw the woman riding on the back of Browning’s motorcycle when she was a seasonal employee, a low-paying job that is often worked by high school or college students on summer break.

“The first time I saw [the woman], I thought, ‘Wow, she looks young,’ ” said one former employee. “Then Mike came up on his Harley-Davidson, she hopped on the back of it and they rode out of the park. The park manager of one of the biggest parks in the state is coming to pick up this young girl on his personal motorcycle.”

Former staffers said they were told the woman was Browning’s niece, which was why he often brought her coffee, doughnuts and other treats. It was unusual that a summer employee would be given park housing, former Gunpowder workers said. The woman continued to live there after her employment ended, which is against department policy, according to current and former park employees.

Bernstein, Browning’s attorney, said the woman remained in the house until around the time she pressed charges. Some of her belongings remain at the house, including a photo of her, Browning and others on a hunting trip, the attorney said.

A record of complaints

Gunpowder Falls State Park encompasses some of the loveliest locations in Baltimore County, from bike trails in Monkton to the Hammerman Beach area near White Marsh. As park manager, Browning also was in charge of Hart-Miller Island and North Point on the Chesapeake Bay.

There are about 17 full-time employees of the park and about five members of the Maryland Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program, assigned there. Each summer, about 70 seasonal employees, many of them high school and college students, work there as well.

Former employees who transferred to Gunpowder from other parks said that colleagues warned them about the culture at Maryland’s largest state park.

“I was pulled aside by my park manager at the time and multiple other staff members who had previously worked at Gunpowder,” said one man who worked there in the mid-2010s. “They said, ‘It is Mike and [assistant manager] Dean’s world. Keep your head down, do what they say and eventually you’ll be able to leave.’ ”

Like other employees interviewed, the man accepted the job because he had previously been a temporary employee at another park and he was offered a full-time ranger position at Gunpowder. The park had a high rate of turnover throughout the 2010s because so many fled the toxic culture there, former employees said.

There are about 10 houses on park property, and Browning controlled who lived in them, former employees said. This is typical of Maryland state parks; full-time employees live in the homes for free in exchange for being available around the clock to handle emergencies and after-hours requests, state park employees said. The park also rented rooms in homes to conservation corps members. Browning and his wife have lived in one of these park homes for decades, former employees say.

An excerpt of a statement from a park employee about Michael Browning.
An excerpt of a statement from a park employee about Michael Browning. (Courtesy document)

Former employees say Browning dangled the promise of housing in an attempt to gain power over workers.

“If you had a house, you were uniquely vulnerable to them,” said a former Gunpowder ranger, Christina McCullough. Those who had park housing were reluctant to question or complain about Browning because they knew they could lose their job, their health insurance and their housing if they crossed him, she and other former employees said.

“From the jump, you belonged to them,” Behe, who served as crew chief for the conservation corps volunteers in 2015, said of those who received housing. “The role of a park manager who controls park housing — it’s one of the few feudal lords that exist in our society.”

Indeed, after Behe and other members of the conservation corps raised concerns to their supervisor in state park headquarters that Browning and Hughes were requiring them to do copious park maintenance work that prevented them from fulfilling the requirements of their program, Browning retaliated by threatening to raise the rent on their park housing, according to four accounts reviewed by The Banner that corps members sent to senior state parks officials in 2015.

“How is the rent working out for you guys? Is it too low?,” Browning reportedly asked, according to an account that Behe sent to two high-ranking park service officials in 2015. “I set the rent and sometimes we can change it if it’s not working out.”

He also mocked the group’s educational and enrichment trips, corps members said.

“The role of a park manager who controls park housing — it’s one of the few feudal lords that exist in our society.”

During one particularly contentious meeting, Browning berated those who attempted to take notes and forcefully shoved a notepad across the table, knocking two sets of keys — Behe’s and another corps member’s — to the floor, according to accounts of the incident that were sent to supervisors and reviewed by The Banner. He then tossed a pencil at Behe and ordered him to write “team player” on a notepad, according to these accounts. “You could use that,” Browning said, according to Behe’s statement.

“I was completely taken aback by his actions and felt extremely threatened and intimidated,” Behe wrote. “I have never had an employer or supervisor behave with this level of aggression.”

One corps member wrote in her statement that since the meeting, “I have been afraid to come to work.”

“Mike’s repeated threats about our future careers as well as our housing have made me scared of making even a small honest mistake,” she wrote. “I have anxiety at the thought of speaking to Mike or Dean in future meetings or emails. I am also anxious about following the proper channels of communication because it was clearly stated that this was childish, and it may result in having my career ruined.”

The woman requested a transfer to a crew at another park, citing “incredible anxiety” and “the potential consequences of making a small mistake,” among other reasons.

Browning also reportedly said at the meeting that he would remember those who had registered complaints about him and prevent them from being hired by the park service, according to written accounts from the corps members. Behe said a park official told him soon after the meeting that his contract would be terminated early and that the decision was made by “multiple people.” While previous conservation crew chiefs had been offered jobs as full-time rangers, Behe said, he was not. He believed this was in retaliation for the concerns he had expressed about Gunpowder management, according to an account he wrote at the time.

The following year, a new crop of conservation corps members arrived. They encountered similar problems, according to a male member of that group. They filed complaints to state conservation corps leaders and suffered the wrath of park management, he said.

That man had a background in ornithology and loved taking the park’s birds of prey to school groups, but he said he was told that he could no longer take part in such trips. He was assigned to clean bathrooms. “I felt like I was blackballed,” he told The Banner.

Gunpowder Falls State Park
Gunpowder Falls State Park (Julie Scharper/The Baltimore Banner)

Harassment and retaliation

In 2015, Hughes, then a ranger at Gunpowder, allegedly harassed a female ranger who had recently ended a consensual relationship with him, according to a written account that Lindley Austin emailed to parks superintendent Nina Settina in 2015 and provided to The Banner. Her account was corroborated by three emails that other staffers sent to state officials at the time, as well as interviews with six former Gunpowder workers.

Reached for comment, Hughes referred all questions to the Department of Natural Resources communications team; spokesman Bortz declined to comment

According to interviews with former employees and the 2015 emails, Hughes confronted Austin numerous times during work hours at the park, asking her to take him back and leaving notes and gifts at her home and in her truck. Austin repeatedly asked him to leave her alone. When Hughes continued his advances, she complained to Christina McCullough, her supervisor, per department policy. Browning reportedly told Austin he would make sure that Hughes stopped.

Yet for months, Hughes continued his campaign to win her back, culminating in what Austin describes as a terrifying incident in which he cornered her outside a maintenance garage, prevented her from leaving, yanked open the door of her truck and screamed profanities. When Austin managed to leave, he followed her to her home and marched inside. She fled and remained out of the home until he left.

McCullough, Browning and several other members of park leadership, including Browning’s then-boss and regional manager Peyton Taylor, met with Austin and said Hughes would be ordered to stay away from her and that the two would not be scheduled to work at the same location. Browning said that he would counsel Hughes, who was already part of his inner circle.

However, just three weeks after this meeting, Austin was the ranger on duty at Hammerman Beach, where her home was also located, when Browning drove up with Hughes and said he and Hughes would be working on a special project there. Flabbergasted, Austin complained to McCullough and another meeting was called.

At that meeting, Austin said she felt “ambushed” by Taylor, a longtime friend of Browning’s. “I felt like she backed me in a corner and I wasn’t able to speak up,” Austin wrote in a contemporaneous account that she sent to Settina. “She manipulated the conversation to make me feel ridiculous.”

Taylor did not respond to requests for comment.

Several weeks later, Taylor told Austin that she needed to stop complaining about the harassment, according to former employees and contemporaneous accounts. Austin was granted a transfer to another park. McCullough and another direct supervisor left the park service. Taylor has since retired.

“From my perspective, Mike tried to drive Lindley out of a job,” McCullough said. “After that, Mike had nothing but negative things to say about Lindley. His attitude toward her was so negative. The kind of tasks he was assigning her, and to a certain extent me, felt like an attack. I tried to stand up to him, but I was also afraid for my job and my home.”

Hughes was subsequently promoted to be assistant manager at Gunpowder. Several former park staffers said Hughes continued to have problems with women. They allege he has had relationships with several seasonal staffers, which would be a violation of state park policy; Browning was aware of this and told staffers that as soon as he would learn about Hughes and a female subordinate, “he’s moved on to the next one,” according to an account McCullough sent to park officials in 2015.

A former Gunpowder staffer said he recalled Hughes taking a female seasonal employee on a boat ride during her shift. The woman returned visibly shaken, saying Hughes was a “creep” and that she never wanted to be alone with him again, the man said. He said he filed a complaint about Hughes, but he was not apprised of whether any action was taken.

Several former staffers also said that around 2013, a few female seasonal employees filed a complaint about Hughes. Nothing came of the complaint, they said. However, the former employees recalled, Browning said at a meeting that he did not want to hire back the women who had filed the complaint.

Hughes, who began serving as president of the Maryland Rangers Association in 2019, advised board members in an email last week that he would no longer be seeking reelection, according to a copy of the email that was provided to The Banner.

“Over the past 22 days, I have faced challenges that are easily the most significant, complex, and of the highest magnitude of any that I have ever faced in my life,” Hughes wrote. “I plan to remain an active contributor to the organization, however I just know that I need to let someone else carry the torch for a while, so that I can focus my time, attention, heart, and soul on the issues here at home.”

An excerpt of a statement from a park employee about Michael Browning.
An excerpt of a statement from a park employee about Michael Browning. (Courtesy document)

Old Boys’ Club

Browning made clear which employees were his favorites, former Gunpowder workers interviewed by The Banner said. Each morning, those closest to him would be invited to join him for breakfast at a park building in the Sweet Air section of the park, which is also where Browning’s house is located. They would be given plum assignments and invited to join in special activities, such as a state-sponsored managed deer hunt nearby, former employees said. They were also invited on annual hunting trips to Colorado, former employees said.

“It’s an old boys’ club,” said one former employee who worked there in the mid-2010s. “If you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re out.”

“We quickly figured out that we were not to go to Sweet Air or ask questions about it,” said another former employee who worked there around the same time. “Mike had a crew of people who reported to Sweet Air who were completely cut out of the rest of the park’s operations. Sweet Air was Mike’s place and those were Mike’s people.”

A sign at the entrance of Gunpowder Falls State Park Sweet Air Area.
A sign at the entrance of Gunpowder Falls State Park's Sweet Air Area. (Julie Scharper/The Baltimore Banner)

Several former employees spoke of feeling that Browning and Hughes were seeing if workers were willing to break rules. They said the managers would invite seasonal employees to parties that began before their shifts had ended and encourage them to have a drink while still on the clock, a violation of state park policy. They would also invite employees to join them for crabbing trips during the work day, another policy violation.

“Mike is a smart predator,” one former employee said of Browning’s ability to manipulate staff. “He tested people. Do you want to go out to dinner? Want to have a beer at my house?”

If you said “no” two or three times, the invitations ended and employees found themselves “shunted … off to the side” and ultimately forced out, the former employee said.

Browning would take risks to help favorites, former employees said. Statements that McCullough and another female Gunpowder ranger emailed to park officials in 2015 describe how Browning sent interview questions to the latter when she was applying to be his assistant manager, the job Hughes ultimately got. The interview was more of an oral test than a conversation, former employees said, so sending her the questions in advance was tantamount to slipping someone the questions on an exam.

“Mike Browning sent me the script of the Assistant Manager interview last fall, which he believed I was competing for in the coming weeks. I received it via email a few days before I planned to announce my resignation. I responded that I hoped it was a mistake and didn’t plan to read the questions,” the woman wrote. “When Mike called me a short while later, I told him in no uncertain terms that I was not pleased with his actions and felt this crossed an ethical line; he laughed and said it had been sent to me accidentally. Because of my impending departure from State employment, I elected not to further pursue the issue.”

Multiple former state park service and DNR police employees said that it was common knowledge that Browning led hunting trips for deer in parts of the park where hunting is prohibited. Some alleged he even hunted snapping turtles, an activity he reportedly referred to as “turtling.”

Days Cove Area Environmental Education Center at Gunpowder Falls State Park, in White Marsh, MD, Monday, October 24, 2022.
Days Cove Area Environmental Education Center at Gunpowder Falls State Park, in White Marsh, Monday, October 24, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

“He basically used the parks as his own little plaything,” said a former DNR police official.

Browning had nicknames for employees, some of which had sexual overtones, several former employees said. He called one employee, who started at the park when she was 15, “Lolita,” the titular character of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a 12-year-old girl who is seduced and sexually assaulted by a middle-aged man. Another woman he called “Peaches.”

Those who challenged Browning were punished, former employees said. One woman said that after she raised concerns about the improper use of state vehicles, she was given irregular shifts in which she would have to close the park at 10:30 p.m. and then open it at 6 a.m. the next day. Her days off would vary each week and would not be sequential, so, for example, she would have off Monday and Thursday one week and Saturday and Tuesday the next.

Members of Browning’s inner circle found they were swiftly exiled if they crossed him or Hughes, former employees said. One longtime contractual park worker, Nita Beanland, was a rising star, according to former employees. Browning frequently praised her and offered her high-visibility assignments that he said would help her secure a full-time ranger position. Beanland lived in park housing and drove a park vehicle, she said.

“I took pride in my work there,” Beanland said. “I grew up there and we all became a bit of a family.”

But eventually, Beanland said, she drew the ire of Browning. She said she had remained friends with Austin, the woman who had allegedly been cornered in her truck by Hughes. Austin had taken a position at another park, fallen in love and was about to get married. Beanland was heading to Austin’s bachelorette party when a park staffer told her she could no longer use the state vehicle she had been issued. Two days later, Browning called her and told her that she could no longer live in her park house, she said.

“He basically used the parks as his own little plaything.”

Former DNR police official

After Beanland attended Austin’s wedding, things only got worse, she said. She was forced to document all of her time and assigned challenging tasks that she had to complete in a short amount of time. And, although Browning had previously told her that she excelled in her interviews, she said, she was not offered a permanent position.

Like other former employees, Beanland was deeply shaken by her experiences at Gunpowder. “Browning had so much power and protection and ability to scare people,” she said. “We all still have trauma and trust issues.”

Many former employees said their careers were derailed when they got on Browning’s bad side. “I thought I was a failure for leaving there,” said one man who had worked at Gunpowder. “These people who join the park service, they’re young people who want to save the world and help the environment. Browning and Dean are preying on that.”

Many former Gunpowder workers said they still wrestled with a sense of guilt over their time there. They wondered if they could have done more to stop Browning. Simultaneously, they expressed frustration that the concerns they sent to senior park officials in 2015 appeared to go unheeded — Browning remained park manager and Hughes was promoted to be his deputy — and the following year, Browning moved the alleged victim into park housing. Many also spoke of a lingering trauma and fear from their time at the park.

“Even now, I am still so afraid of Mike,” said one former employee who left Gunpowder in the mid-2010′s. “When I started a new job, I was afraid he would show up and tell everyone I needed to go. I would get the shakes and randomly start crying.”

Gunpowder Falls State Park
Gunpowder Falls State Park (Julie Scharper/The Baltimore Banner)

At the Sweet Air entrance to the park, all appeared calm a few days after Browning’s arrest. Corn stalks rustled in the October breeze. Horses grazed in a meadow. A painted sign on a park guide board said, “Spread happiness where you go, not when.”

A woman who identified herself as Browning’s wife came to the door of their brick ranch home. She smiled sadly and declined to answer questions. “Are you a gardener?” she asked a Banner reporter.

In front of the home, shaded by a tree, was a sign inviting young people to enroll in 4-H.