Streaked with spiderwebs, the squat brick house is surrounded by water, woods and rustling marsh grasses. The next closest home is more than three miles away.

It was here, in the Days Cove section of Gunpowder Falls State Park, where police say the park’s longtime manager assigned a young employee to live and repeatedly raped her. On Tuesday, a trial is slated to begin in Baltimore County Circuit Court for Michael J. Browning, 72, who retired from the Maryland Park Service after his arrest.

The trial will hinge on questions of manipulation and control, power and consent. Rape cases can prove difficult to prosecute, and this case could be particularly complex, legal observers and sexual assault survivor advocates say.

For more than three decades, Browning ran Gunpowder, Maryland’s largest state park, a collection of forests, beaches and historic sites across eastern and northern Baltimore County. The power and influence Browning wielded over his staff led many in the park service to call Gunpowder, “The Kingdom.”

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Michael Browning served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Michael J. Browning, who served as manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park from 1991 to 2022, is charged with raping two park employees. His trial is slated to begin Tuesday. (Baltimore County police)

Browning’s reign abruptly ended in September when Baltimore County Police arrested him after a former Gunpowder employee, a woman more than 40 years his junior, accused him of raping her 10 to 15 times over a six-year period. Police said they secretly recorded a phone conversation between Browning and the woman in which he admitted to raping her.

Browning’s comments “clearly show that he admitted to forcibly sexually assaulting the victim multiple times over the course of their relationship,” police wrote in charging documents.

A few weeks later, a Baltimore County grand jury indicted Browning on 27 counts related to the rapes of both that former employee and a second young woman who had been a seasonal employee at the park.

Browning, who remains in the Baltimore County jail, has maintained that he is innocent. His attorney, Gary Bernstein, has said that he expects the trial will be “lengthy” and that he has photos and text messages that show his client was in a consensual relationship with the first former park employee. He has claimed the second woman accused Browning of rape as a show of solidarity to the first former employee.

The Baltimore Banner does not reveal the names of victims of sexual assault unless they elect to be publicly identified.

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Browning arranged for the first alleged victim to live in an isolated home in a remote section of the park, Days Cove, according to police and park employees. He had a key to this gate, the only way to access the home by land. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger declined to comment on the case, but confirmed that the trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday.

A Baltimore Banner investigation revealed in October that Browning fostered a culture of bullying, favoritism and retaliation at the 18,000-acre park. The Banner spoke with 15 current and former employees and reviewed eight documents that employees had sent supervisors detailing complaints about Browning’s abusive management style. Following the publication of the investigation, three state parks employees were fired: Gunpowder’s assistant manager, the regional supervisor who oversaw Browning, and the superintendent of the entire state park system.

As the lone holdover from a program in which Maryland park rangers were law enforcement officers, Browning had a state-issued badge and gun. Although state officials suspended Browning after his arrest, he was protected under the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, retained his job and remained on leave until his December retirement. As he awaits trial in the Baltimore County Detention Center, Browning collects a $94,500-a-year pension. Even if convicted, he will continue to receive the full benefit ― a fact that prompted two state lawmakers to propose legislation that would end the privilege for officers convicted of felonies.

According to court documents, Browning met the first accuser when she was a teenager taking part in a 4-H program led by his wife in their home on park property in Sweet Air in northern Baltimore County. Browning and his wife spent decades living rent-free in this state-owned home, and former Gunpowder employees say that Browning offered — and rescinded― free housing as a way to gain leverage over workers.

Browning hired the woman to work at the park in 2016, when she was in her early 20s. In 2017, according to court documents, he moved her into the home in Days Cove in White Marsh. The house sits at the end of a long and mostly desolate road where the Eastern Regional Landfill and a smaller gravel dump are located. A gate bars the mile-long gravel pathway that leads to the home; Browning had a key to the gate and the house, according to charging documents.

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Police allege in court documents that Browning arrived at the home and demanded sex from the woman multiple times a day, “to the point of it being an obsession.” He often showed up at the house early in the morning before she had awakened, according to the documents.

“The victim reported that it was not unusual for her and the defendant to engage in sexual intercourse four to five times a day at various points in their relationship,” police wrote.

According to court documents, Browning would force the employee to call him “master” during sex, “become aggressive” and slap her. At times, when he would appear in her bedroom, she would decline to have sex with him, say “no” and wrap herself in blankets, police wrote in the documents. Browning would then rip away the blankets and her clothing, pin her down and forcibly rape her, according to the documents.

Former Gunpowder employees say they were led to believe that the young woman was Browning’s niece. He referred to her by a childish nickname, as he did with many female employees, and she was part of a core group of Gunpowder insiders who received the most coveted assignments and accompanied Browning on annual hunting trips to Colorado.

Facebook posts show the employee and Browning’s wife, a master gardener, collaborating on nature videos throughout the park. Current and former Gunpowder employees say the two women worked together closely.

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Kristen Houser, the former chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said it is common in situations of rape or sexual assault for a perpetrator to groom not only the victim but others around them.

“They are gaining trust, not just of the victim but everyone else in the environment,” she said. “Testing boundaries. Figuring out who is going to follow the rules, who is not going to follow the rules. Things start slow. They start subtle.”

The Days Cove home is streaked with cobwebs and grime. A former Gunpowder employee told police that Browning moved her into the home, demanded sex from her multiple times a day and raped her when she refused, according to court records. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Department of Natural Resources land records, which The Banner obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, show that the woman was paying $250 per month for the home. Departmental emails indicate the woman was not “a permanent employee” of the park system when she signed an updated lease in 2020.

The lower level of the home is used by Baltimore County Public Schools as an educational facility. Students travel to Days Cove for environmental field trips. Kayaks are neatly stacked around the property and colorful paintings about the life cycle of butterflies adorn an equipment shed.

Bernstein, Browning’s attorney, has said that the woman had traveled to Colorado with Browning in early September and that photos from the trip show her laughing and having fun. The alleged victims also had a close personal relationship, according to Bernstein and park employees.

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It is unclear how Browning came to know the second woman and what happened between them. Her LinkedIn profile says that she worked as a seasonal employee at the park in the summers of 2021 and 2022. The grand jury indicted him in three counts of rape involving her.

The first woman recounted the rapes to police on Sept. 23 and placed the recorded call four days later. According to the police, the woman believes Browning raped her 10 to 15 times over six years, but cannot recall specific dates.

About one in five women in the United States have been raped, according to statistics compiled by the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault or MCASA. About 80% of survivors of rape know their attacker.

It’s common for rape survivors to take months, years or even decades to come to terms with the fact that they were sexually assaulted and go to police, said Lisae Jordan, an attorney and the executive director of the coalition who is not involved in this case.

“Most people know that reporting rape opens yourself up to allegations that you’re at fault,” said Jordan. “Many rape survivors question that there is something they did wrong. And when the rapist is someone the survivor was intimate with before, there is more hesitancy.”

Jordan said that a confluence of complicating factors could make the case against Browning particularly challenging to prosecute, including that the relationship appeared to include elements of BDSM, or bondage, domination and sadomasochism. “It will be important for the jury to understand that just because people are involved in role playing, that does not deprive them of their agency to say ‘no,’” she said.

Jordan said that prosecutors were taking the case was a sign that the legal community has developed a better understanding of consent. In the past, police and prosecutors hesitated to bring charges in such cases.

“I think both the prosecutors and the survivors are brave,” said Jordan. “It’s very important to have prosecutors who listen to the survivors and go forward with the case even if the case is difficult. You have to know that sometimes you’re going to lose, but if you never try, you’re never going to win.”

A taxidermy pheasant in a glass display case can be seen in the window of the house at Days Cove. The Gunpowder employee who lived here fled the house around the time she pressed rape charges against her former boss. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Gunpowder employees and Browning’s attorney say the woman who met Browning as a teen abruptly fled the Days Cove house around the time she pressed charges. The home appeared deserted last week; a taxidermy pheasant and swan could be seen encased in glass inside.

In the back yard, a riot of bright daffodils emerged from last year’s overgrown garden. The jawbones of small animals lay scattered on a cement patio, shattered by an apparent fall. The air was quiet, save for the hiss and thump of trucks at the nearby gravel pit and the calls of seagulls circling overheard.

julie.scharper@thebaltimorebanner.com

If you are a victim of rape or sexual assault, you can contact a local rape crisis center or police.

Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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