Fraud turns tragic: Agent kills auditor

By James Quiggle
July 7, 2009
Sallie Rohrbach’s newest assignment seemed routine enough.

imageThe auditor for the North Carolina insurance department was combing Charlotte agent Michael Howell’s records for clues he was bilking clients and mismanaging agency funds. He’d stolen more than $150,000 in premiums that hundreds of clients had paid him for auto and homeowner insurance. Howell had left his clients dangerously uncovered.

The insurer he did business with, GMAC Insurance, even had severed ties with Howell over the mess and alerted the department about Howell’s problems.

But nobody would foresee the violence and tragedy to come.

Rohrbach drove in from the department’s headquarters imagein Raleigh in mid-May 2008 and began her probe of Howell’s tangled finances. The project seemed straight-forward enough, a bookish drill into a struggling agent’s finances. She emailed her supervisor after a day, noting she’d found troubling evidence in Howell’s books.

No one ever saw Rohrbach alive again.

Rohrbach went missing

She didn’t show up for a meeting with her supervisor at the insurance department two days later in Raleigh. She also missed a get-together with friends the night before.

Rohrbach quickly was declared missing, and police launched a search. They found her state-owned Chevy Malibu at a Bojangles Restaurant less than a half-mile from Howell’s agency. Her belongings were discovered in her nearby hotel room.

“Sallie would be a friend to anyone who needed somebody. So, many people are alone now because Sallie is gone.”Rohrbach’s fate darkened when investigators searched Howell’s office. They found blood on his rug and computer cord, and in the back of his Acura SUV.

More evidence mounted, and the noose quickly closed around Howell. He was cornered, but stubbornly refused to confess.

Rohrbach’s body still was missing. Only Howell knew where she was and what really had happened to her. And he wasn’t telling. So prosecutors cut a deal. They wouldn’t seek life in prison if he’d confess to a lesser rap of murder-second degree, and show them where Rohrbach was. Howell agreed.

Police found her badly decomposed body partially wrapped in garbage bags, in a wooded area near Fort Mill, South Carolina.

Hit her with computer stand

Perhaps the best clue to what happened came from Howell’s wife Tina. She said he’d privately admitted he’d snapped when she kept asking him questions in his office. Howell told Tina he’d hit Rohrbach with a computer stand in a blind rage, she said.

Prosecutors wanted a life sentence, but felt murder-one would’ve been impossible to prove without Howell’s own confession or an eyewitness. Nor did anyone know exactly how Rohrbach died since her body was so decomposed.

Despite the deal with prosecutors, Howell will stew for up to 35 years after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and bilking his clients in May 2009. That could keep the 41-year-old defrocked agent in a cell for most of his days.

Rohrbach and husband Tim were married 24 years. They’d met while in college. Tim was disconsolate over losing her.

“We did not have any children so Sallie was really all I had…” he told the judge at Howell’s sentencing. “Sallie would be a friend to anyone who needed somebody. So, many people are alone now because Sallie is gone.”

Plaque to her memory

She also was highly regarded among her colleagues at the North Carolina Insurance Department. Her murder hit them hard as well. A grief counselor was called in to help. The department also held a memorial service, dedicated a plaque to Rohrbach. It hangs in the lobby.

“Last May, the department began the long journey through the grieving process. While the sentencing does provide some sense of closure, we continue to mourn the loss of our dear colleague and friend, Sallie,” Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin told the coalition.

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