Ex-insurance agent faces prisonin slaying of state inspector

The Charlotte ObserverMay 30, 2009 

Former Charlotte insurance agent Michael Howell was sentenced Friday to at least 15 years in prison for killing a state auditor who had discovered improprieties in his financial records.

The second-degree murder conviction means Howell will spend 27 to 35 years in prison. Last week, he got at least 121/2 years after pleading guilty to 25 counts of embezzlement.

Howell, 41, killed Sallie Rohrbach in May 2008 just days after she came from Raleigh to audit his Dilworth Insurance Agency. Her body was dumped in a wooded area near Fort Mill, S.C.

In court Friday, Howell's wife turned to Rohrbach's husband and began crying.

"For the last year, I have had Sallie's loved ones in my heart and in my prayers," she told him. "This has been a tragedy for your family as well as for me and my children. I will never know the pain and suffering you have endured. I pray every day that Sallie's family and my children and I might have a good life again."

As the hearing ended, the two met in the aisle and hugged.

Authorities don't know how Sallie Rohrbach was killed, Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Beth Greene told Judge Timothy Patti. Rohrbach disappeared two days after arriving in Charlotte, and her body was too decomposed when it was recovered a week later.

But the prosecutor told the judge that police found Rohrbach's blood in Howell's insurance agency and in the back of his Acura SUV.

Greene said Rohrbach, 44, sent e-mail to her boss at the N.C. Department of Insurance about her discoveries at Howell's agency. She had found that Howell was floating money, the prosecutor said.

Tina Howell told police her husband described a confrontation with Rohrbach. "Her husband told her that Sallie Rohrbach kept asking him questions, and he snapped and struck her with a computer stand and hurt her," Greene told the judge.

Prosecutors cut a deal with Michael Howell just days after Rohrbach disappeared. Greene said they agreed not to seek the death penalty if Howell would lead them to Rohrbach's body. Howell took police to the area in South Carolina where Rohrbach's body had been hidden.

Without the body, Greene said, police would not have been able to determine whether the blood found in Howell's office and SUV belonged to Rohrbach.

"It was imperative that we find Sallie's body," the prosecutor said.

Greene, in an interview with The Charlotte Observer, explained why Howell wasn't prosecuted for first-degree murder, which is punishable by life in prison.

The prosecutor cited four reasons: it was a circumstantial case, there were no eyewitnesses, authorities weren't sure how Rohrbach was killed, and Howell hadn't confessed.

"Based on the strengths and weaknesses of the case, we crafted a plea agreement that saved the family a trial but effectively assured that this man would spend the rest of his life in prison," the prosecutor said.

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