A Baltimore County jury on Thursday evening convicted Michael J. Browning, the former longtime manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park, of a fourth-degree sexual offense but acquitted him on more serious charges of rape and assault in the case of two former employees.

Jurors deliberated eight hours before returning the verdict. The longtime state parks official was accused of raping two young women who worked at the park, with whom he also had consensual sexual relationships. The jury spent five days hearing testimony in what the prosecutor described as a “twisted triangle” — a story of control, manipulation and deceit set in the backdrop of dense forests, historic homes and placid shores of Maryland’s largest state park.

Browning, 72, was to be released on his own recognizance Thursday from the Baltimore County Detention Center, where he had been held since September. He is due back in court on Monday for sentencing on the sole misdemeanor charge for which he was convicted.

A fourth-degree sexual offense carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison. Browning’s attorney, Gary Bernstein, told Circuit Court Judge Wendy Epstein that he would ask for his client to be sentenced to time served, which is about six months.

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Browning, wearing an orange jumpsuit, burst into silent tears at the verdict. “Thank you everyone for your help,” said Browning, a former law enforcement officer who spent 50 years with the Maryland Park Service.

Bernstein said afterward that the jurors — 10 women and two men — were skeptical of the accusers. “The jury didn’t believe anything [the first woman] had to say and most of what [the second woman] had to say,” he said.

Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian D. Botts praised the women, who became Baltimore County police officers after leaving Gunpowder. “I think the victims were very brave to come forward,” Botts said. “We hope there is at least some level of accountability in this verdict.”

The website for the Maryland Sex Offender Registry says someone convicted of a fourth-degree sex offense must register and remain on it for 15 years.

A juror, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Shaniyah, said she and other jurors felt there was not enough evidence to show that rape had occurred. They thought the first woman to come forward “was making up her story as she was going along,” she said.

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“There wasn’t a lot of evidence supporting the witnesses,” she said. “The case felt thrown together. I didn’t think they took the time to investigate everyone.”

The second accuser seemed more “credible,” Shaniyah said. The offense for which jurors found Browning guilty involved this woman.

Shaniyah, 21, said she and other jurors believed Browning “was really sad the girls felt this way.”

“I’m glad he’s going home to his family tonight,” she said.

While Browning was acquitted on all but one of the criminal charges that he faced, the case exposed a shocking lack of oversight at Maryland’s largest state park. Browning did not contest that he was having sex with two much younger employees around the park, both of whom he helped secure housing.

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After Browning’s arrest, The Baltimore Banner investigated allegations of harassment and a toxic work environment at Gunpowder during Browning’s three decadeslong tenure. Interviews with 15 former and current Gunpowder employees painted a portrait of Browning as an expert manipulator, who divided workers into an “in group” and an “out group.” He rewarded favored employees with free meals, hunting trips and prime assignments, they said. Those who questioned him were assigned to unpleasant tasks or difficult schedules, the workers said.

The Banner reviewed eight written complaints that Gunpowder employees had sent higher-ups in the state park service in 2015 detailing a culture of bullying, harassment and retaliation at the park. The employees did not see any changes after they filed the complaints, and many believed that they were retaliated against for complaining.

Following the publication of The Banner’s investigation, Browning’s assistant manager, the regional supervisor who oversaw Browning, and the superintendent of the entire state park system were fired. The Department of Natural Resources has seen further shake-ups under the administration of Gov. Wes Moore, who took office in January.

Browning, the lone holdover from a program in which Maryland park rangers were law enforcement officers, was allowed to retire in December and began collecting a $94,500 annual pension while in the Baltimore County jail awaiting trial.

In opening statements, Botts described Browning as a controlling predator who manipulated and ultimately raped the two young women who worked for him at the park, which many dubbed “The Kingdom” because of his absolute control over it.

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“Michael Browning would not take ‘no’ for an answer,” Botts said in his opening statements. “He did it anyway, by force or threat of force.”

During five days of testimony, Bernstein told the jury that the accusers fabricated tales of rapein order to preserve their careers. He described the first woman as “an absolute consummate liar” and the second as “a follower.”

The Baltimore Banner does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they choose to have their names printed.

Bernstein pursued an aggressive strategy in cross-examining the two alleged victims, especially the first accuser, now 30. The defense attorney strode across the courtroom, reenacting Browning’s walk to the bed on one of the occasions when she alleged she was raped. He questioned her for more than six hours, asking her to recount deeply intimate details of her sexual life. He even asked why she did not commit suicide during a period of despair.

Botts led the women in recounting the hold that Browning had over them. He had managed Gunpowder since 1991 — before either woman was born — and controlled not only their job, but their benefits, housing and, to varying extents, their personal lives.

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“It was all Michael Browning’s way,” Botts said. “He’s their landlord. He’s their boss. He’s their job reference. He’s their confidant.”

The first woman testified that she met Browning when she was 11 and taking part in a 4-H program that Browning’s wife ran from their then-home, which is owned by the state, in the Sweet Air section of the park. The girl and her twin sister were home-schooled and socially isolated; the girls began spending much of their free time at the couple’s home, sharing meals, gardening, caring for horses and cleaning Browning’s motorcycle in exchange for spending money. The girls spent so much time doing chores for the Brownings that they were able to buy a horse with their earnings. They kept it with the Brownings’ horses, giving them yet another reason to visit the couple.

In time, the then-teenage girl grew close to Browning, joining him for walks with weights around the park, the first woman testified. She said Browning started to talk about sex with her, commenting on the bodies of women and men visiting Gunpowder and asking her to speculate about their anatomy. She said that her parents — conservative Christians — had never broached the topic of sex with her and it was the first time an adult had discussed sexual matters with her. Browning also suggested that she work at the park when she got older and said he could help her get housing, she testified.

As the woman grew older, the talk of sex grew more explicit. In 2016, when she was 23, the woman had sex with Browning after one of these chats, she testified. She said he was the first man she had sex with. Soon, Browning and the woman were meeting for trysts at Browning’s house and in wooded areas of the park.

As promised, Browning helped the woman secure a job at Gunpowder and moved her into a state-owned home in a remote area of the park known as Days Cove, where she paid no rent or minimal rent depending on the year. The home is down the road from a county dump and a gravel landfill and could only be reached by a gated, mile-long driveway flanked by water, marsh and woods.

“Once she moved into the house, the person who had access and keys and a gun was Michael Browning,” Botts told jurors.

Park employees told The Banner they were led to believe that the woman was Browning’s niece, so they were not surprised when they saw the park manager giving preferential treatment to a low-level employee.

Bearing coffee and muffins from Dunkin’ Donuts, Browning would arrive at the woman’s house nearly every morning for sex, she said. The woman testified that Browning grew controlling over time, demanding that she text him when she woke up and confess each time she masturbated or spent time with a friend or colleague. He began to request that she call him “master” during sex and referred to her as his “sex slave,” she testified.

The woman testified that on three occasions when she declined sex, Browning violently raped her, including one time when she passed out because he pushed her face into a pillow, preventing her from breathing.

Bernstein mocked this episode in his opening statements, saying “No,” in a breathless voice and acting out her description of trying to push Browning away.

The woman said that she believes there were other times when Browning raped her, but she does not have clear memories of them. “I know there were more, but there is a wall in my mind and I can’t get past that wall,” she said.

Browning had near total control over her, she testified. “I did not have any independent thoughts,” she said. “He told me what to do and what to say.” She was afraid to leave Browning, she testified, afraid he would hurt her or her loved ones.

Bernstein pointed out several discrepancies in the first woman’s testimony. He found a document showing that she had started 4-H with Browning’s wife at 14, not 11. He noted that although she said she was afraid of Browning, she could provide no threatening text messages. He also showed jurors a message that she had sent a co-worker in July indicating that she expected him to soon give her a ring and that it was a “forever” relationship. Bernstein opined that perhaps the woman was aiming to get revenge on Browning, who had frequently promised to leave his wife for her but never done so. He also suggested that she might be seeking revenge after she learned Browning was sleeping with her on-again, off-again girlfriend.

The second woman, now 25, started working at the park in 2019, during the summer between her junior and senior years of college. She returned the following summer and was assigned to work under the supervision of the first woman at the gatehouse in the Hammerman beach area of the park.

She testified that Browning showed a special interest in her and the first woman, bringing them coffee and sandwiches. He would call the gatehouse throughout the day to chat with them and began questioning her about her personal life, she said. At the same time, the younger woman found herself developing a crush on the first woman, her supervisor.

The older woman did not reciprocate her feelings, but, the older woman testified, Browning encouraged her to begin a relationship to fulfill his fantasies of having a sexual encounter with two women. “He said having threesomes was very normal,” the older woman testified. “He said everyone in the park was doing them.”

She followed his instructions and struck up a romantic relationship with the older woman in the fall of 2020.

The second woman testified that she was often confused by the first woman’s behavior. She repeatedly asked that woman as well as Browning if they were involved, but both denied it. The first woman convinced the second woman to let Browning watch while they had sex and eventually take part in sexual activity with them, according to testimony.

The younger woman said she cried the first time Browning took part in their intimate activities. But her girlfriend, to whom she was deeply devoted, made it clear that she must deal with Browning if she wanted the relationship to continue, she said.

The women’s relationship had many ups and downs, both testified. The younger woman turned to Browning for relationship advice since he had known the first woman “since she was a kid.” The first woman, too, sought Browning’s advice on how to end things with the younger woman.

Meanwhile, Browning continued to have a clandestine sexual relationship with the older woman and also began secretly meeting up for sexual encounters with the younger woman, according to testimony. The younger woman testified that Browning was also the first man she had slept with and that she usually covered her face with her shirt or a pillow so she did not have to see him.

The younger woman said that Browning forced her into sexual acts, including oral sex, that she did not want to participate in.

Bernstein suggested that the second woman, like the first, had filed charges to get revenge on Browning. He also pointed out that she might have been doing so to score points with her ex-girlfriend.

The first woman accuser testified that she confided to a male colleague about her interactions with Browning and, at his prompting, reported the allegations to police investigators who handle sex assault cases. Bernstein alleged that the woman had invented the tale to win her co-worker’s sympathy as she broke up with Browning, and then felt obligated to stick with the tale as it was shared with superiors. However, Sgt. Jeffrey Mickle, of the police department’s Special Victims’ Unit, testified that the division never proceeds with a sexual assault case without the victim’s full support, since participating in such trials can be painful and retraumatizing for victims.

The investigators worked with the first woman to secretly record a phone call in which Browning appeared to admit to the rapes. He was arrested in September and indicted by a Baltimore County grand jury in October on 27 counts related to the alleged rapes of both women. Browning ultimately faced 18 counts.

After the jury returned its verdict, Judge Epstein instructed Browning to stay away from both women as well as Gunpowder Falls State Park.

Bernstein, the defense attorney, clapped Browning on the shoulder. “The only place you’re going to go tomorrow is to see me and maybe get a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts,” he said.

julie.scharper@thebaltimorebanner.com

Julie Scharper is a news enterprise reporter who writes about interesting people, places, trends and traditions in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. She seeks to answer the question: What does it mean to be alive in this time and place? 

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