A Baltimore County grand jury this week indicted Michael J. Browning, the longtime manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park, on charges of rape, sexual assault and other offenses stemming from alleged attacks on a former employee and another woman who worked at the park, according to court documents.
Browning, 71, was arrested by Baltimore County Police late last month after he allegedly confessed in a recorded telephone call to raping the first former employee, police said. Browning first met the woman when she was a teen taking part in a 4-H program run by his wife at their home in Baldwin, on park property, police said. Browning hired the young woman as a seasonal worker a few years after meeting her, moved her into a home on park property, and began a consensual relationship with her that was punctuated by violent rape, police allege. Authorities said these alleged incidents took place at homes on park property.
The second accuser also previously worked at Gunpowder, but as a seasonal worker, according to a social media profile and current state park staff. The Baltimore Banner does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault unless they choose to reveal their names.
Browning’s attorney, Gary Bernstein, said his client, who remains in jail, was “beside himself” to learn that the grand jury had indicted him for raping the second woman. “I thought he was going to stroke out he was so stunned by that allegation,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said that Browning had had no sexual contact with the second woman. He alleged that the second woman made up the allegations to support the first accuser; Browning denies raping her as well.
The attorney has described Browning as a beloved figure in the park service.
But former employees told The Banner that Browning, who has been the manager of the 18,000-acre park in Baltimore and Harford counties since 1991, fostered a “toxic” work environment rife with bullying, harassment and favoritism. State park employees referred to the park as “The Kingdom,” they said, because Browning followed his own rules there, playing favorites and retaliating against those who challenged him.
The Banner spoke with 15 current and former employees of the Maryland Park Service and the Maryland Natural Resources Police for an in-depth investigation of alleged misconduct at the park. Interviews and internal emails reviewed by The Banner depict an environment in which the fates of employees were subject to the whims of Browning and the Assistant Park Manager Dean Hughes. The pair targeted those who raised concerns with state park officials, former Gunpowder employees said.
Hughes has been placed on leave “until further notice,” according to an email sent Tuesday to Gunpowder employees by Philip R. Hager, an official with the state Department of Natural Resources. The email also said that Ranger Wayne Suydam would serve as acting manager for Gunpowder effective Thursday.
The DNR has declined to say whether Browning, a ranger with law enforcement powers, was still employed by the park service, where he’s worked for 50 years. The agency cited personnel privacy rules.
“Wayne brings with him many years of experience in the Maryland Park Service and will help to lead you into the winter months,” Hager wrote in his email. “I am certain you will benefit from Wayne’s guidance and support.”
Hager wrote that he was “proud” of Gunpowder staff for “pulling together and keeping this very special place running smoothly during this challenging time.”