CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An insurance agent has pleaded guilty to murdering the state auditor who was investigating him.
Michael Howell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Friday in Mecklenburg County court.
Howell is accused of killing Sallie Rohrbach, a Raleigh-based investigator with the NC Department of Insurance.
Rohrbach was investigating financial mismanagement at the Dilworth Insurance Agency, a family business Howell ran. Last week, Howell pleaded guilty to 25 counts of embezzlement. He was pocketing premiums. Rohrbach had been alerted by GMAC Insurance and was visiting Charlotte to investigate the problems in May 2008.
Under the plea deal, Howell will spend at least 27 years and 9 months in prison. The maximum sentence is 35 years and 9 months.
The courtroom was packed with Rohrbach's friends and colleagues. Many agents for the Department of Insurance were there, including the department's head, Wayne Goodwin. Goodwin told reporters after the hearing, "Today's sentencing brings closure to a very tragic chapter in the history of our North Carolina Department of Insurance."
Sallie's husband, Tim, spoke in court about the life he and his wife had built together. They were married a week after graduating from college, he said. They had no children, but traveled often. "She was all I had," Tim Rohrbach said.
Rohrbach called Sallie a kind of "friend to the friendless." "The thing I really noticed was that so many of her friends had no other friends. Sallie was their only friend. It's just the way she was," Rohrbach said.
Howell did not speak in court on Friday. His wife, Tina Howell faced Tim Rohrbach as she read a statement, saying, "For the last year I have had Sallie's loved ones in my heart and in my prayers. This has been a tragedy for your family as well as for me and my children. ... I ask that everyone please continue to pray for Sallie's family and for me and my children, that one day we will have peace in our hearts."
After the hearing, Tina Howell approached Tim Rohrbach and the two hugged.
Mark Foster, Howell's defense attorney, told the court that Howell has expressed remorse to him privately. He read letters from Howell's wife, half brother and his parents about the good life he led up until the murder.
Foster said Howell took over his father's business right after high school. He suggested he was not qualified for the responsibility, but said he tried hard.
"His whole life story leading up to this would be someone who would never do such a thing," Foster told Newschannel 36 after the hearing. "No one would have predicted he would do such a thing, and unfortunately he did."
Prosecutors also released new details in court on Friday. They said that Tina Howell told police, in the days after the murder, that her husband said that Rohrbach was asking too many questions and he snapped, hitting her with a computer stand.
Blood was discovered in the Dilworth Insurance Agency and in the back of Howell's car.
Rohrbach's car was found in a Bojangles' parking lot with keys and cash inside. The prosecution suggested in court that Howell hoped it would be stolen to confuse police.
In exchange for a promise that they wouldn't seek the death penalty, Howell gave police information that eventually helped them find Rohrbach's body in York County, S.C., a week after she was reported missing. The body was so badly decomposed that an exact cause of death was never determined.
"There are a lot of lives that were ruined," said Karen Denis, a childhood friend of Rohrbach. "It's just tragic. It's really sad and it didn't have to happen."