Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Murder charge, but no body

Victoria Cherrie, Martha Quillin and Gary L. Wright, McClatchy Newspapers
The body of Sallie Jordan Rohrbach hasn't been found, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have charged a Union County man with murdering the state insurance examiner from Angier.
Rohrbach, who worked for the N.C. Department of Insurance in Raleigh, disappeared while in Charlotte last week to audit the Dilworth Insurance Agency.

The owner and operator of the agency, Michael Arthur Howell, 40, of Indian Trail, a Charlotte suburb, was being held in the Mecklenburg County jail without bail. He will make his first court appearance today. He has no criminal record in North Carolina.

Charlotte police, citing the continuing investigation, released little information Monday about the case. Homicide Sgt. Ricky Robbins would not say how police know Rohrbach is dead or how they linked Howell to her disappearance.

Robbins said police don't need a body to charge someone with murder. "If we have evidence to prove they committed a crime, we can charge them with the crime," the sergeant said.

Rohrbach, 44, had been assigned to look through the Dilworth agency's files, review Howell's books and interview him, said Chrissy Pearson, a Department of Insurance spokeswoman in Raleigh.

"We had absolutely no indication this would be anything but routine," Pearson said. "It wasn't anything egregious. There was no red flag that suggested we needed to treat this case different than any other."

Details of the complaint about the insurance agency, which are normally public record, are not being released because of the police investigation, Pearson said.

On Monday morning, the Insurance Department called in a minister to help with grieving employees.

"One of the prevailing sentiments here today is, of course, you look back and wonder what you could have done differently," Pearson said.

Investigators are trained to call in if they feel threatened or unsafe while in the field, Pearson said. In fact, Rohrbach had done so in the past.

"If only she'd called in for backup [this time]," Pearson said.

Last seen Wednesday

Rohrbach worked for years in the insurance industry, in underwriting and claims adjustment. She had been at the Department of Insurance for eight years, serving for the past five as an examiner, responsible for auditing insurance agencies and making sure they met licensing requirements for continuing education.

Rohrbach was last seen between 3 and 4 p.m. Wednesday -- apparently at the Dilworth agency on South Boulevard in Charlotte. State insurance department staff members reported Rohrbach missing Friday night to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police after being unable to find anyone who had seen her, Pearson said.

On Sunday morning, the state-owned vehicle that Rohrbach had been driving, a Chevrolet Malibu, was found in the parking lot of a Bojangles' restaurant on West Boulevard in Charlotte -- less than a half-mile from the insurance agency.

Police said Monday that they had searched Rohrbach's vehicle as well as Howell's business and vehicle.

Rohrbach was the daughter of a tobacco farmer who became a planter of a different kind -- sowing flowers around her house and kindnesses among her neighbors.

"I just don't have enough adjectives to describe her," said Jerry Smith, who lives next door to the home Rohrbach shared with her husband, Tim, in Angier. "She was just a great person. She tried to do everything she could to help anybody, her neighbors all around."

Rohrbach was a 1981 graduate of Garner Senior High School. In 1995, she graduated from Meredith College in Raleigh with a bachelor's degree in sociology.

Since moving into a remodeled 1920s-era Colonial-style home on Chalybeate Springs Road, the Rohrbachs had set a standard for the neighborhood, Smith said, in the way they cared for the house and yard.

Smith's wife, Jean, said the Rohrbachs always worked as a pair.

"Tim's real handy, and Sallie was right there to help him," she said. "They were a very loving couple. What one was doing, the other was doing also."

Rohrbach was known for her love of animals, both the cats and dogs she kept and those that wandered up. She kept food and water in dishes on her front porch, Jean Smith said. Stray animals who needed it knew right where to go.

Pearson, of the Insurance Department, said Rohrbach had a reputation for being a thorough and conscientious employee.

"Right now we are in a grieving period," Pearson said. "It's going to take us some time to get over the shock of it, and we have a lot of work ahead of us."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8989