The former longtime manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park, who had been accused of raping two female employees, was sentenced Monday to two years’ unsupervised probation after a jury found him not guilty of all but one misdemeanor charge.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Wendy S. Epstein handed down that sentence on a charge of fourth-degree sexual offense against Michael Browning. She declined at the urging of the state to strike the finding of guilt and grant probation before judgment, which is not considered a conviction and would have allowed him to seek to expunge his record after three years.
“At this point,” Epstein said, “I do believe it is appropriate for the guilty finding to remain.”
As part of his probation, Browning cannot have contact with the women and must stay away from all state parks in Maryland. He has to register as a sex offender for 15 years but can later ask the court to modify his sentence.
Browning, 72, of Timonium, presided for 30 years over Gunpowder Falls State Park, which covers 18,000 acres of woodlands, meadows, boating areas and historic sites in Baltimore and Harford counties. He spent about six months in the Baltimore County Detention Center until late last week when the jury returned its verdict.
Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Botts argued at trial that Browning was a controlling and manipulative predator who used the park — which some referred to as “The Kingdom” because of the control that he over it — as his “sexual playground.”
Under Maryland law, Botts said, rape is sex without consent.
One of the women testified that she met Browning at a young age through a 4-H program that his wife ran at their home.
The woman said she entered into a sexual relationship with Browning at 23 and took a job at the park, where she was provided housing. When she at times declined his sexual advances, she testified, Browning raped her.
The second woman to come forward testified that Browning forced her to take part in sexual acts.
The jury convicted him for one of those sexual acts. The woman spoke at sentencing about how the crime affected her life and encouraged other survivors of sexual abuse to come forward if they want to report what happened to them.
“Mike Browning affected my life in more ways than one. He was my boss. He was my close friend,” she said. “The bottom line is that he took advantage of me. And only basically he and I will know what happened on those days.”
Botts asked the judge to hand down a sentence of one year in jail, with all but time served suspended, and two or three years’ unsupervised probation. He argued against probation before judgment, emphasizing the need for there to be some level of accountability.
At one point, Botts introduced a letter from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Current and former employees, he said, have expressed concerns about Browning having access to state parks.
The letter was confidentially made part of the record.
Botts said three to four people who worked at the park had made complaints “prior to this coming out” and spoke to Baltimore County Police.
“There’s been quite a large number of individuals that have come forward, many of them female, who have expressed concerns about the defendant being around that park, any of the state parks where any of them may work, and their concerns for their safety,” Botts said.
“Talking about an environment where it didn’t get to this level, fortunately, of this sex offense,” he added, “but enough that it was a very hostile environment.”
Though the information was not presented at trial, Botts said, there are records that indicate that Browning received a reprimand “for that type of environment, kind of a sexual harassment-type situation” years before the women started working at the park.
Outside the courtroom, Botts said he was pleased with the sentence and commended the bravery of the women for coming forward.
Even if Browning had received the maximum sentence of one year, he would’ve only served an additional four to eights weeks because of the time that he spent incarcerated awaiting trial, Botts said. He said it was important for the conviction to remain on Browning’s record and that people could look him up on the Maryland Sex Offender Registry.
”We’re happy there was at least something,” Botts said. “So just people know. That’s the biggest thing — is just so that people know.”
The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, he said, will oppose future efforts to modify the sentence.
Gary Bernstein, Browning’s attorney, at trial called one of the women “an absolute consummate liar” and described the other as “a follower.” Both are now Baltimore County Police officers.
Browning acknowledged that he was secretly having sex with the women when they worked for him — and engaging in threesomes — but denied that he raped them. He is former law enforcement officer who carried a badge and gun.
The Baltimore Banner last year investigated allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment during Browning’s decades-long tenure running Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Following publication, Browning’s assistant manager, who was accused of harassing female workers and intimidating staffers, was fired. State officials later dismissed the regional supervisor who oversaw Browning, and the superintendent of the entire state park system.
Following his arrest, Browning was suspended. He later retired after 50 years with the Maryland Park Service. He receives an annual pension of $94,500.
Bernstein asked the judge to allow his client to leave the state and keep guns for hunting, which she granted.
Throughout his representation of Browning, Bernstein said, he received phone calls and letters from people ranging from career employees at Gunpowder Falls State Park to retired members of the Baltimore County Police Department that praised his client for his generosity and management skills.
Police, he said, were “too excited to lock him up to do a media blast.”
“You’ve heard it all. You’ve been able to digest it over the two weeks. You gave him as fair a trial as any human being’s every had in this country,” Bernstein said. “So whatever you do will be the right thing.”
Browning declined to make a statement in court.
In an interview, Bernstein said the sentence was appropriate. He also spoke about his client’s plans.
”He’s retired. He’s got his Social Security,” Bernstein said. “He wants to try to rehabilitate his relationship with his wife so that the two of them can retire together and be able to farm and and hunt and fish and ride horses.”
Enterprise reporter Julie Scharper contributed reporting to this story.