The detectives began questioning the suspect — the longtime manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park — gently. Did he know a certain young woman? How did she come to live in an isolated section of the park? What was the nature of their relationship?
“We have not had sex. She will tell you that,” Michael J. Browning, 72, told Baltimore County Police detectives in a video interview shown to jurors in a Towson courtroom Friday.
Then the detectives, Sgt. Jeffrey A. Mickle and Det. Isaiah M. Negron, tightened their net. They had in fact spoken with the woman, whom Browning had known since she was 11. And she had told them that she and Browning had had sex many times over the past six years — and that when she declined sex on several occasions, Browning, her mentor and former employer, had raped her.
Browning then acknowledged to police that he had been having sex with the woman, but appeared shocked that she had accused him of raping her. “Rape? Rape? Rape?” he said loudly in the video interview that was recorded after his September 2022 arrest. “I never raped that girl.”
The video was shown to jurors on the second day of testimony in the trial of Browning, 72, who was indicted last year on 27 counts of rape, sexual assault and assault of the first woman and of a second young female employee. Browning, a longtime ranger who carried a state-issued gun and badge prior to leaving the Maryland Park Service, has pleaded innocent and his defense attorney, Gary Bernstein, said all sexual acts with both employees were consensual.
The Baltimore Banner does not identify alleged victims of rape or sexual assault unless they request their names to be published. Both women became Baltimore County Police officers after leaving Gunpowder Falls, the largest state park in Maryland.
Jurors at times appeared aghast at the contents of the video. Browning repeatedly bragged about his sexual prowess to the detectives questioning him. “The day we left for Colorado, I gave her so many orgasms. It was unbelievable,” he said.
In the video, the detectives caught Browning in lie after lie. He said he had only one phone, then acknowledged having a second, secret phone he used for racy exchanges with his accusers.
He told investigators that he had moved the young woman to an isolated state-owned house in the Days Cove section of the park because he needed to have a police officer there. However, she did not enter the police academy until more than four years after she moved there.
In the video, Browning said he watched but never took part in sexual encounters between the two women — who were also in a sexual relationship with each other— then acknowledged he sometimes did. He told investigators the first woman would ask him to hold the second woman down during sex. “She’d say, ‘Hold her down for me, Mike.’ I’d hold her arms down, hold her hands over her head.”
Browning also told investigators in the video that he never touched the women in a sexual way during these encounters — “That was taboo,” he said. But upon further questioning, he divulged that he sometimes spanked them.
Testimony on Thursday revealed that Browning encouraged the first and second women to begin a sexual relationship to fulfill his own fantasies.
“He said having threesomes was very normal,” the first woman testified. “He said everyone in the park was doing them.”
Soon the women began a sexual relationship and sent photos and videos to Browning, according to testimony.
As he watched and sometimes joined in the sexual encounters between the women, the married Browning secretly engaged in sexual activity with each woman individually — a fact that he and the women kept from each other, according to opening statements and the first woman’s testimony.
In the video, the former ranger told investigators that he initially lied about having a sexual relationship with the first accuser because he wanted to protect her career. “I don’t want [the woman] to get in trouble. She’s a good girl,” he said.
Browning acknowledged to investigators the naïveté of the primary victim. “She’s a very home-schooled young lady learning her way through the police force,” he said. “She’s very different.”
After the video was shown, Mickle took the stand Friday and was questioned by Bernstein and Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian D. Botts.
In cross examination, Bernstein asked Mickle why he did not search Browning’s state-issued phone for messages. Mickle explained that it took weeks or months for investigators to find that phone and that all parties — Browning and his accusers — said that messages of a sexual nature were exchanged via the secret phone.
Bernstein pointed out that the first woman to accuse Browning testified on Thursday that she stayed with Browning after the alleged rapes because she feared for her safety, yet in the video interview and a secretly recorded call between the woman and Browning, he makes no threats.
On the witness stand Thursday, the first woman testified that she was 11 when she met Browning. She was taking part in a 4-H program that his wife ran from their home in Gunpowder. The accuser and her sister, who were home-schooled and had few friends, would work in the gardens, tend the horses and clean his truck and motorcycle.
In 2016, at age 23, she entered into a sexual relationship with Browning, who then hired her and moved her into a house in a remote section of the park. A few years into their relationship, she testified, Browning entered her house one morning when she was still asleep and raped her, the first of what she said were multiple sexual assaults.
Bernstein, the defense attorney, on Thursday called the first woman a “manipulative, conniving liar” and implied that she had made up the rape allegations because she was disappointed Browning had not left his wife for her.
Browning was suspended after his arrest last fall and then retired with a $94,500 annual pension from the state 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 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 Banner 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.
The video that jurors watched Friday was recorded a few hours after the primary accuser placed a secretly taped phone call to Browning while the detectives listened in. In that call, Browning appeared to admit to the rapes, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Forgive me for that. It will never happen again. I promise you it will never happen again.”
When Browning was asked by Mickle and Negron in the video interview why he would have made these statements and similar remarks if he had not committed rape, Browning is unable to give a clear answer. Mickle pointed out that as a law enforcement officer, Browning should have realized that his words sounded like a confession.
“A prudent person would think that,” Browning said in the video. “But that didn’t happen. One day, I’m going to prove it.”