The young woman was 11 when she first met the man who would become her mentor, boss, landlord, lover and, she testified Thursday, her rapist.

She was taking part in a 4-H program that his wife ran from their home in Gunpowder Falls State Park. The accuser and her sister, who were home-schooled and had few friends, would work in the gardens, tend the horses and clean the truck and motorcycle of the man, Michael J. Browning, the longtime manager of the park, she testified.

As she grew older, she grew closer to Browning and he began to make sexual comments to her, the woman said during emotional testimony in Baltimore County Circuit Court, where Browning is on trial for rape. In 2016, at age 23, she entered into an intense 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.

“I said, ‘No Mike, I’m not in the mood,’” she recounted on the witness stand. Browning drew himself upright, said, “What did you say?” then ripped away the bedcovers and raped her, the woman testified. “I remember looking up at the light and thinking, ‘I’m being raped right now,’” she said. “I felt dead inside.”

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Michael Browning served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Michael Browning served as the manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park from 1991 until 2022. He is on trial in Baltimore County on charges that he raped two former employees. (Baltimore County police)

The dramatic moment came in the first day of testimony in the case against 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, 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 ask for their names to be published. Both women have become Baltimore County Police officers since leaving Gunpowder.

Bernstein, in his opening statements, described the first woman as “the most manipulative, conniving liar” and implied that she fabricated the rape allegations because she was disappointed that Browning had not left his wife for her. He questioned why she continued to be in a relationship with Browning after the alleged rapes occurred.

The defense attorney mocked the woman’s description of one of the alleged rapes in his remarks. “She’s gasping, ‘No,’” he said in a breathless voice, pushing upward with his hands as if trying to shove away an assailant.

“That’s not rape,” he said. “He took her to such an orgasmic state that it was too much for her.”

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Assistant State’s Attorney Brian D. Botts was much more measured in his opening remarks. He instructed the jury — which is composed of 10 women and two men — that rape under current Maryland law is sex that occurs without consent.

“Consent has to be an agreement, not, as Mr. Browning would have it, submission,” he said. Without consent, he added, “it goes from being a relationship to a crime that is being committed.”

The woman, who said she was raised in a conservative Christian family, said Browning was one of the first people she ever talked about sex with. From her teen years, he encouraged her to take a job at Gunpowder Falls and dangled the possibility of free housing at the park. He was the first man she had sex with, she said.

“I trusted him,” said the petite woman, who wore a green sweater and black pants on the witness stand. “I trusted his judgment. I had known him since I was 11.”

The woman said she could clearly recall three times that he raped her in her isolated park home, although she believes there are many more. “There is a wall in my brain, and even through therapy, I can’t get past that,” she said.

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Browning, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit with a dingy white shirt underneath, appeared expressionless as the woman described the three alleged rapes. The second time it happened, she said, she again told Browning she did not want to have sex, but he pinned her arms down and raped her. “I was afraid for my life at that time,” she said.

Normally, when Browning entered her home in the mornings, he would whistle or sing, but on the days of the alleged rapes, he was silent, she testified. The third time, she said, she tried to fight back, but the larger Browning overpowered her. This time, she testified, he pushed her head down in the bed so that she was unable to breathe. She recalled him penetrating her before she blacked out, and then waking up as he ejaculated on her back.

The woman testified that she was afraid to end her relationship with Browning after the alleged rapes because she was afraid that he would hurt her or her family. She said he told her, “If I can’t have you, no one will.

Court proceedings created an alarming depiction of the work environment at Gunpowder Falls, Maryland’s largest state park, which encompasses scenic regions of northern and eastern Baltimore County and part of Harford County. Both the prosecutor and defense attorney said Browning would meet the women around the park during the workday for sex. Botts, the prosecutor, described Gunpowder as Browning’s “sexual playground.”

Browning and the first woman, who is now 30, had code words that they used for the consensual sexual encounters. They would text each other “Do you want to count turkeys?” to arrange a liaison. The pair would have sex in the woman’s state-owned home, Browning’s state-owned home and wooded areas in the park.

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Several years into their relationship, the second woman, who is now 25, developed feelings for the first woman, who was her supervisor at the park. The first woman testified she was was reluctant to get involved with her, but that Browning encouraged her because he said he had a fantasy of seeing two women engage in sex.

“He said having threesomes was very normal,” the 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. Browning would sometimes watch their sexual encounters in person and, on occasion, join in.

Meanwhile, Browning was secretly engaged in sexual activity with each woman individually — a fact that he and the women kept from one other, according to opening statements and the first woman’s testimony.

Bernstein described the relationship between the two women as “tumultuous” and said it was the two of them who made the first move on Browning.

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The defense attorney said the second woman would pull her shirt over her face during encounters with Browning so that she didn’t have to see him. He read from text messages in which that woman agreed to meet Browning in a park greenhouse or a park house known as “the mansion.”

In the text messages that Bernstein read, the second woman appeared to be pining for the first, as the two women had an on-again, off-again relationship. In the messages, she asks Browning to intercede on her behalf with the first woman, apparently unaware that Browning was also having sex with her.

The second woman is expected to testify later in the trial, which attorneys say could continue for three or four more days.

The first woman testified that she confided in a coworker in the police department about her interactions with Browning and that he reported it to her sergeant. She was interviewed by the Special Victims Unit, which works on sexual assault cases, and then placed a recorded call to Browning in late September in which police say he admitted to the nonconsensual sex. Botts played a video of that call in court.

Bernstein cross-examined the woman for about a half hour before Judge Wendy S. Epstein put court in recess for the day. Bernstein asked the woman about text messages she had sent in July that suggested she wanted a “forever” relationship with Browning. He also pointed out that Browning did not sound threatening in the recorded call, but sad and worried.

Browning had worked for the Maryland Park Service since 1972 and served as manager of 18,000-acre Gunpowder Falls State Park since 1991.

He was arrested by Baltimore County Police in late September on charges that he had raped the first young woman. A few weeks later, a grand jury indicted Browning in the alleged rape and assault of both women.

“What will become clear is [Browning] would not take no for answer,” said Botts. “He did it anyway, by force or threat of force.”

Scenes from Day's Cove in Gunpowder State Park on March 21, 2023.
A Gunpowder Falls State Park employee was repeatedly raped by her boss in this isolated home on park property, Baltimore County Police say. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

State park officials suspended Browning after his arrest. He was allowed to retire in December and began collecting a $94,500 annual pension while in the Baltimore County Detention Center awaiting trial.

After Browning’s arrest, The Baltimore Banner investigated allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment at Gunpowder during Browning’s three-decadeslong tenure. The Banner interviewed 15 former and current Gunpowder employees who described Browning as an expert manipulator — charming to allies and cruel to those who questioned him. He divided park staff into an “in” group and an “out” group, doling out plum assignments to favored employees and relegating others to irregular shifts and unpleasant tasks, the employees said.

The Banner reviewed eight written complaints that Gunpowder employees had sent 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 after 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 Department of Natural Resources has seen further shake-ups under the administration of Gov. Wes Moore, who took office in January.

Several former Gunpowder employees who spoke with a Banner reporter for the investigation were at court earlier this week for jury selection. They remarked that if their complaints had been taken seriously in 2015, the events that precipitated the trial might never have occurred.

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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