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Former insurance agent to plead guilty in death of investigator
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Former insurance agent to plead guilty in death of investigator

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CHARLOTTE

Former insurance agent Michael Howell will plead guilty to the high-profile 2008 murder of an investigator who came to Charlotte to audit his books, The Charlotte Observer reported.

In a deal that will send him to prison for more than 27 years, Howell agreed in court Thursday to plead guilty to killing state insurance investigator Sallie Rohrbach, whose body was dumped in a wooded area of South Carolina just days after she'd begun combing through Howell's records.

Howell, 41, pleaded guilty to 25 counts of embezzlement Thursday, but no date has been set for the second-degree murder plea.

Howell embezzled more than $150,000 from clients, jeopardizing hundreds of policy holders, Mecklenburg's Assistant District Attorney Beth Greene told the judge Thursday.

"He was issuing fraudulent policies and embezzling that money," said Greene. His customers had no idea they were driving around uninsured, she said.

Rohrbach, 44, got a tip last spring that customers' payments were not being sent promptly by Howell to GMAC Insurance Co., and that money that was sent might have been less than what customers paid, according to court documents.

In May 2008, she traveled from Raleigh to audit the Dilworth Insurance Agency, owned and operated by Howell.

She arrived May 12, and the next day sent an e-mail to her supervisor at the N.C. Department of Insurance: "He gave me 16 months of bank statements today ... and there were issues in each month. No negative balances but he is floating money."

Rohrbach disappeared May 14.

Her state-owned car, a Chevrolet Malibu, was later found in the parking lot of a Bojangles' restaurant on West Boulevard -- less than half a mile from the Dilworth agency on South Boulevard. Her body was discovered a few days later in a rural area near Fort Mill.

Police searched Howell's office and discovered spots on the carpet and a computer cord that tests suggested were blood, according to court documents.

Police seized carpet, blood evidence, a desk, a computer, customer files, a vacuum cleaner and pornographic material, according to a search warrant.

An investigator wrote in a search warrant that Rohrbach had been reviewing records that showed unremitted premiums to GMAC. "It appears from Rohrbach's e-mail communications the Dilworth Insurance Agency had multiple issues concerning insurance premiums paid by innocent customers," the investigator wrote.

On Thursday, Howell was sentenced to a minimum of 121/2 years in prison for embezzlement and will get at least 15 years more for the murder. The maximum he could serve is 35 years.

"It's the best deal we could get," Howell's attorney Mark Foster told the Observer. "It's less than life without parole."

Tim Rohrbach, Sallie's husband of 24 years, had said previously he hoped for the death penalty. As he left the courthouse Thursday, he responded to the plea deal, saying: "There's nothing that can bring Sallie back to me."

During the court hearing, Howell answered questions about his plea Thursday but didn't talk about his crimes. But his wife, Tina, apologized as she left the courthouse: "All I want to say is, I'm sorry."

Rohrbach's colleagues at the Department of Insurance expressed relief that Howell is being held accountable.

"We're glad the embezzlement case has come to an end," said Kristin Milam, an insurance department spokeswoman. "We feel we've finished the job that Sallie started."

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