The trial for a former Gunpowder Falls State Park manager accused of sexually assaulting two women is set to begin Tuesday, amid wider scrutiny of the park service’s handling of abuse complaints.
A grand jury indictment in October charged Michael Browning, 72, with 27 counts for alleged attacks on two women, including charges of second-degree rape and second-degree assault.
Browning is being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson. A jury trial is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
Baltimore County Police arrested Browning in September and charged him with sexually assaulting a former park employee. The woman told police she first met Browning as a teenager while participating in a 4-H club run by Browning’s wife, before working as a seasonal park ranger at Gunpowder Falls as an adult.
Charging documents describe a yearslong consensual sexual relationship between Browning and the woman, who moved into a park property in White Marsh with his help.
Browning had keys to her residence and would arrive multiple times a day requesting sex, charging documents said. Police said the former park manager forced her to have sex with him 10 to 15 times over the course of the relationship, both at the White Marsh home and at Browning’s home in Harford County.
On a secretly recorded phone call with investigators, Browning admitted to raping the woman and apologized, police wrote in charging documents.
His attorney Gary Bernstein has denied the allegations and said Browning’s relationship with the former employee was consensual. Bernstein said in October his client was “stunned” to hear the second victim had come forward with accusations of rape.
Browning worked for the park service, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, for 45 years, Bernstein said. He initially was suspended without pay and his police powers were revoked Sept. 29, department spokesperson Gregg Bortz said. His last day at the Department of Natural Resources was Nov. 30.
Gunpowder Falls State Park is among the state’s largest parks, spanning more than 18,000 acres along Big and Little Gunpowder Falls with parcels from Prettyboy Reservoir to near the river’s mouth on the Chesapeake Bay. The park includes more than 120 miles of multiuse trails in Baltimore and Harford counties, along with spots for canoeing, kayaking and fishing.
Following Browning’s indictment and reporting by The Baltimore Banner that employees had complained repeatedly about Browning’s alleged misconduct since 2015, state lawmakers called for an independent review of the Department of Natural Resources’ culture and policies.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth and then-Del. Eric Luedtke wrote in an October letter to Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, then Maryland’s secretary of natural resources, that the department should seek a review of the “systemic abuse of employees” to be conducted by the Department of Budget and Management or the Office of the Attorney General.
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The two Democrats called for the firing of those who aided the abuse or allowed it to continue, and said any criminal actions should be reported to law enforcement.
“The behavior and lack of accountability described is inexcusable and requires prompt action,” wrote Elfreth, who represents Anne Arundel County, and Luedtke, who represented Montgomery County before he became Gov. Wes Moore’s chief legislative officer. “The public trust in the Park Service and the parks system has been profoundly undermined.”
Haddaway-Riccio wrote in November that bullying, harassment or abuse of power would not be tolerated and acknowledged “very serious and troubling allegations” at Gunpowder Falls, but said she could not discuss allegations or ongoing personnel investigations.
Bortz said in a statement Friday that Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz is committed to working in partnership with other state agencies to ensure a safe working environment.
“DNR is engaged in review, in consultation with the Maryland Department of Budget and Management and the Office of the Attorney General, and looks forward to implementing strengthened policies, procedures, and training,” Bortz wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
Multiple park service officials left the agency later in November, including Nina Settina, the former park service superintendent, regional manager Steve McCoy and Gunpowder Falls assistant manager Dean Hughes.
At the time, Bortz said the Department of Natural Resources was investigating “serious and disturbing allegations” and taking swift action in accordance with state law and guidance from the attorney general.