The defense attorney displayed on a screen texts that the witness had exchanged with the man she said raped her — her former mentor, boss and lover — then began to question her about the most intimate details of her life.

When did she and the defendant, former longtime Gunpowder Falls State Park manager Michael Browning, 72, use lubricant when having sex? Who cleaned up after he ejaculated on her? Why did she masturbate on a particular date? What did the water drop emoji signify?

At this, Browning whispered in his attorney’s ear. “Does that mean your vagina was wet?” the attorney, Gary Bernstein, then asked the witness, a 30-year-old woman who had previously testified that she first met Browning when she was a home-schooled middle school student with few friends.

Michael Browning served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Michael Browning, who served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park for three decades, was charged in the alleged rapes of two former employees. He denied the charges. (Baltimore County police)

These questions came Monday during more than six hours in which Bernstein cross-examined the woman, now a Baltimore County police officer. Bernstein also stalked through the courtroom, seeking to reenact the way she had said Browning walked to her bedroom before one of the rapes. He asked if she was sleeping with any of the grounds crew who tended the yard of her then-home: “Were you having relations with any of the mowers?”

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Bernstein even asked about a time of despair during a trip with Browning to Colorado last autumn, shortly before the woman pressed charges against him. “Why didn’t you kill yourself?” the attorney asked. “Why didn’t you throw yourself off the mountain?”

The woman, who joined the Baltimore County Police Department after working at Gunpowder, remained calm and unflappable on the witness stand. The petite officer, her hair in a tidy brown ponytail, told the jury that Browning controlled nearly every aspect of her life until she severed her relationship with him last September.

“I did not have any independent thoughts, sir,” she told Bernstein about Browning. “He told me what to do and what to say.”

The Baltimore Banner does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault unless they elect to have their names published. The woman previously testified that she confided to a male colleague 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 related to the alleged rapes of both women. His trial began Thursday in Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Wendy S. Epstein’s courtroom.

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Last week, the woman testified that she met Browning through a 4-H program that his wife had led in their state-owned home in the Sweet Air section of the 18,000-acre park. She saw him as a mentor, she said, and he encouraged her to get a job at the park and later got her free housing there. In 2016, when she was in her early 20s, the woman and Browning began a sexual relationship and, despite the 40-year age gap, he was first man she had sex with.

Soon after, Browning hired her to work at the park and moved her into a state-owned home in a remote section of the park known as Days Cove. The woman lived there alone, down a mile-long private drive from a dump and gravel pit. Browning would arrive at her home early in the morning most days to have sex with her, according to testimony. It is there that the woman said the rapes occurred several times during the course of their six-year relationship.

In the course of the lengthy cross-examination, Bernstein sought to chip away at the accuser’s credibility, pointing out several discrepancies in her testimony. She first said that she met Browning at age 11, but Bernstein said he found records saying she was 14 when she joined his wife’s program. She also said that Browning called her as frequently as five to seven times a day, but Bernstein said phone records showed he called her about 100 times over a two-year period. He also repeatedly drew attention to the consensual nature of many of their interactions, highlighting flirtatious texts that she had sent Browning.

Bernstein also questioned the woman’s claim that Browning required her to call him “master.” He challenged her statements that she was afraid Browning, a law enforcement officer who carried a badge and a gun, would hurt her or a loved one if she left him, noting there was not any documentation of such remarks. Bernstein also repeatedly asked the woman why she did not attempt to shoot Browning during the alleged rapes, even though she kept a handgun in her bedroom.

“You wouldn’t shoot the rapist who was about to rape you? To put his penis in your vagina when it felt like sandpaper?” he asked, referencing the woman’s description of the pain she felt during rape.

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“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” the woman said.

On Tuesday, Browning’s second accuser took the stand. The woman, 25, also became a Baltimore County police officer after working at Gunpowder. In response to questions from Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian D. Botts, she explained how she had grown attracted to the first woman, her supervisor at the park.

Browning had taken a special interest in her, the woman testified, calling her frequently at her post at Gunpowder and asking about her personal life. He encouraged her to pursue a relationship with the first woman. In testimony last week, the first woman explained that she was not initially sexually interested in the second woman, but Browning pushed her into the relationship.

The second woman, who was a seasonal worker, testified that the first woman’s actions toward her were confusing. She said she suspected the first woman was involved with Browning, but both vehemently denied it at the time. However, after the two women had been together for several months, the first woman encouraged her to engage in sexual acts with her while Browning watched or participated, according to testimony.

The first time it happened, the second woman was hesitant, she said, but the first woman pulled her down on the bed. Browning was standing nearby, and pulled the first woman to her and put his fingers in her vagina, she testified. The second woman said she told Browning to stop and burst into tears.

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Despite the second woman’s qualms, the first woman told her that Browning’s involvement in their relationship was nonnegotiable, the second woman testified. And, because she had deep feelings for the first woman, the second woman said, she went along with it. During one sexual encounter with Browning, he grabbed her wrists and pinned her down while she tried to get away, she said. He pressed so hard it triggered the panic alarm on her Apple Watch, she said.

The second woman said she tried to pretend Browning was not there during the sexual encounters. She would bury her head on the first woman’s shoulder or cover her head with a blanket. Browning and the other woman made her feel ashamed for her misgivings, she said.

“They said, I was the problem. I was the issue. I was being over-dramatic or melodramatic,” she testified.

The women had an on-again, off-again relationship, and the second woman often sought Browning’s advice on how to win back the first. In time, she and Browning began their own sexual relationship, apart from the first woman, the second woman testified. Browning was also the first man the second woman was involved with sexually, she said.

Like the first woman, the second woman said that her encounters with Browning were generally consensual, but that there were three times when he committed sex acts against her will, she said.

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The woman kept her face covered during her private sexual interludes with Browning, too, she testified. “I didn’t like looking at Mike,” she said. “I thought if I couldn’t see him, it would go by faster.”

Bernstein kept his cross-examination of the second woman comparatively brief, spending about two hours questioning her statements and the text messages she had exchanged with Browning, who retired after he was suspended last fall.

Botts said he planned to wrap up the state’s case Wednesday morning. Bernstein will begin to call his witnesses on Wednesday and the closing arguments could come as soon as Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning.

It is unclear how Bernstein’s aggressive treatment of the first woman will play with the jury, which is composed of 10 women and two men. Members of the jury appeared uncomfortable during some of the most personal questions and relieved when the judge sustained some of Botts’ objections, rerouting Bernstein’s lines of inquiry.

Last week, jurors were a shown a video of a police interview with Browning in which he initially lied about having sex with the first woman, but later bragged to detectives about his sexual prowess. He denied committing rape.

Lisae Jordan, the executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said such aggressive courtroom techniques prompt many rape victims to avoid pressing charges.

“That sort of behavior is cruel and designed to intimidate the witness. It has nothing to do with truth or justice,” said Jordan, an attorney who is not involved in the case.

“Rape survivors should be able to testify and know that they will face cross examination and an honest inquiry into what happened,” she said. “If rape survivors have to endure gratuitous humiliation and intimidation at trial, they won’t come forward and sex offenders will be free to rape again.”

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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