CHARLOTTE, N.C. When the state received a complaint about an insurance agency, it was state investigator Sallie Rohrbach who got the assignment to examine its books. Now, her body is missing and the agency's owner is charged with killing her.
Rohrbach traveled nearly 170 miles from Raleigh to Charlotte last week and had planned to spend several days auditing the Dilworth Insurance Agency. When family and co-workers didn't hear from her by late last week, they called police.
A massive ground search led detectives to her car, which was discovered Sunday morning in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant less than a mile from the insurance agency. It wasn't long before authorities charged the owner of the insurance agency, Michael Arthur Howell, with first-degree murder.
"It's the last thing we expected," said Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Department. "We just don't expect our people in the field to be put in this kind of danger. It's been very hard on everyone."
Howell, 40, of Indian Trail, was being held Monday in the Mecklenburg County Jail. Messages left at his home and insurance office were not immediately returned. He is scheduled to appear in court this afternoon.
Authorities said Rohrbach's slaying was connected to her duties as an auditor, and that evidence was found in both her car and Howell's vehicle. The investigation is ongoing, and detectives have yet to find Rohrbach's body, said Julie Hill, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Pearson said a complaint was recently filed against Howell with state insurance officials. She declined to elaborate but noted it was the first since he opened his business more than 20 years ago.
"She was going down there for a very routine sort of examination of the agency, looking at their files. There was nothing whatsoever to give us any indication that she would be in any danger." Pearson said. "She did know that if at any point she felt uncomfortable, she could call in our law enforcement guys, and she has done that in the past.
"But she gave us no calls. Nothing to lead us to believe she was uncomfortable in any way."
As a field examiner, Rohrbach, 44, of Angier, would look at an agency's books and files, and interview employees. Depending on the complaint, such a field investigation could take up to a week. If she found any wrongdoing including fraud she would forward the complaint to the Insurance Department's criminal division, Pearson said.
Rohrbach's husband received an e-mail from her May 13, but no one had seen her since May 14, Pearson said. She missed an appointment with a field supervisor on Thursday. When no one had heard from her by Friday, police were called. Howell was the last person who reported seeing her alive.
Pearson said Rohrbach's death has hit the agency hard. "As far as the department goes, the first thing we're going to do is try to come together to ... get through it on an emotional level," Pearson said. "Secondly, we're going to continue her case. Sallie was a dedicated employee. She would have wanted us to finish what she started."