Jurors on Thursday continued deliberations in the trial of Michael Browning, the former longtime manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park who is accused of raping and assaulting two much younger employees.
Browning’s “whole life was a lie,” Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian D. Botts said in closing arguments Wednesday. The 72-year-old former park manager and law enforcement officer would lie to anyone “as long he got what he wanted in his sexual playground, his kingdom of Gunpowder Falls State Park,” Botts said.
Defense attorney Gary Bernstein acknowledged that Browning, a married man who was secretly having sex with both park employees as well as participating in threesomes with them, was “disgusting.” “Nobody likes Michael Browning for the life he led,” Bernstein said.
Yet Bernstein said the women, who became Baltimore County Police officers after leaving Gunpowder, invented the allegations to get revenge on Browning and to preserve their careers in the police department. The women “outright looked at you and lied,” Bernstein said.
The Baltimore Banner does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault unless they elect to have their names published.
Jurors began deliberations late Wednesday afternoon, broke for the night, and reconvened Thursday morning. The judge gave jurors a 10-minute break Thursday so they could tell their employers they’ll likely be returning Friday to continue deliberations.
Since testimony began Thursday, jurors have been immersed in a complex saga of sex, manipulation and consent involving Browning and his two accusers. Both women testified that their sexual activity with Browning was largely consensual, but both also said that he raped them on several occasions.
Browning met the first woman when she was a girl taking part in a 4-H program run by his wife. The homeschooled daughter of flower farmers, she had few friends and spent a lot of time at the Browning house, doing chores for money and sharing meals with the couple.
In her early teen years, Browning, the manager of Maryland’s largest state park, began talking with her about sex, a topic she never discussed with her conservative Christian parents, she said. He also encouraged her to get a job at Gunpowder and live in a state-owned home in the park. In 2016, when the woman was 23, she entered into a sexual relationship with Browning and took a job at the park. Browning assigned her to live alone in a home in a remote section of the park. It was there, she testified, that she frequently met her boss for consensual sex, but also where he raped her on multiple occasions when she declined his advances.
The woman, now 30, testified that Browning controlled her every action, requiring her to check in each morning and confess when she masturbated, among other private details. “I did not have any independent thoughts,” she said. “He told me what to do and what to say.”
Browning encouraged her to start a relationship with the second woman, who was also a park employee. The first woman said she wasn’t romantically interested in the second woman, but Browning wanted them to get involved to satisfy his fantasy of watching two women have sex and being part of a threesome, she testified.
Within a few months of the women embarking on a relationship, Browning began sitting on the bed when they had sex, holding down the second woman and penetrating both women with his fingers, according to testimony. The second woman, now 25, testified that the first time Browning took part in sexual activity with the two women, she broke down in tears.
The women’s relationship was rocky, in part because the first woman and Browning continued to have sex, a fact they hid from the second woman.
When the first woman broke up with the second, the younger woman turned to Browning for advice on winning her back. Browning then began to have a sexual relationship with the second woman, meeting her for trysts around the park he managed, according to testimony.
The second woman testified that Browning forced her to participate in three sexual acts against her will.
The first woman previously testified that she confided to a male colleague last year about her interactions with Browning and, at his prompting, reported the allegations to police investigators who handle sex assault cases.
The investigators worked with the 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 of rape, sexual assault and other offenses stemming from alleged attacks on the two women.
On Wednesday, Judge Wendy S. Epstein instructed jurors to determine whether Browning was guilty of three counts of second-degree rape of each woman. If they find him not guilty of rape, they can determine whether he is guilty of two lesser charges for each of the six alleged incidents — second-degree assault or a fourth-degree sexual assault.
Wednesday’s closing arguments capped off five days of testimony and grueling cross-examination. Previously, jurors watched a video of Browning repeatedly lying while being questioned by Baltimore County Police Sgt. Jeffrey Mickle of the Special Victims Unit. Both women testified about their relationship with Browning — who was the first man either of them had sex with. Bernstein subjected the first woman to more than six hours of cross-examination, seeking to paint her as a liar and manipulator. He asked her why she had not killed herself during a period of despair — a remark that he apologized to jurors for on Thursday.
Bernstein called two witnesses Thursday: Browning’s brother-in-law, who described how he helped his sister pull text messages from Browning’s state-owned phone, and a woman who with her husband owns a Colorado ranch that Browning visited each year. That woman, Ann Aubuchon, testified that she met both of Browning’s accusers when they visited the ranch, but did not suspect that he was having sex with them.
Browning did not take the stand in his own defense.
Browning was suspended after his arrest last fall and then retired with a $94,500 annual pension from the Maryland Park Service, where he had worked since 1972. He had served for more than three decades as manager of the 18,000-acre Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore and Harford counties.
After Browning’s arrest, The Baltimore Banner investigated allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment at Gunpowder during Browning’s tenure. The Banner interviewed 15 former and current Gunpowder employees who described Browning as skilled at manipulation — charming to allies and cruel to those who questioned him. He doled out plum assignments to favored employees, and relegated others to irregular shifts and unpleasant tasks, the employees said.
The local news site also reviewed eight written complaints that Gunpowder employees had sent to 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.