May 21, 2008

N.C. woman's body found in Fort Mill

FORT MILL -- Sallie Rohrbach's body was found Tuesday in York County -- a day after police charged a Charlotte insurance agent with her murder.

The body of the 44-year-old state insurance department investigator was found in a rural area of Fort Mill Township north of Baxter Village.

Authorities did not say how Rohrbach was killed.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said information they received late Monday led them to search for Rohrbach's remains less than 5 miles from the N.C. line, near the intersection of Vista and Pleasant roads. The search was suspended Monday night because of darkness and resumed Tuesday.

Rohrbach's body was recovered around 2:30 p.m. and has been transported to a medical examiner's office for autopsy.

"We are devastated that all hope is lost, but we also find a sense of closure in knowing that we can lay to rest our dear friend and colleague with the dignity and respect she deserves," Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Insurance, said in a statement.

"Not knowing where to find her was torturous. We pray for peace for Sallie's family and want them to know that we grieve with them."

Rohrbach had come to Charlotte on May 12 to conduct an audit of the Dilworth Insurance Agency, which is owned and operated by Michael Arthur Howell. She disappeared two days later.

Police would not say how they linked Howell to her disappearance or why they charged him with murder.

On Tuesday, while police were searching for Rohrbach's body, Howell made his first court appearance in Charlotte. He was handcuffed and had a chain around his waist.

"Mr. Howell could be subjected to the death penalty," Mecklenburg Assistant Public Defender Susan Weigand told the judge, asking for a court-appointed lawyer to represent Howell.

District Judge Bill Constangy reviewed a financial statement and said Howell had an income of $6,000 a month and owned two 2007 Acuras.

Weigand pointed out that Howell had monthly expenses of $7,200.

But the judge refused to appoint a lawyer: "With the assets he has and the income he's making, I've determined he doesn't qualify for a court-appointed lawyer."

Rohrbach last was seen May 14. Her state-owned car, a Chevrolet Malibu, was found Sunday in the parking lot of a Bojangles' restaurant on West Boulevard -- less than a half-mile from the Dilworth Insurance Agency on South Boulevard.

Police said they had searched Rohrbach's car and Howell's business and vehicle. They would not disclose what evidence, if any, they found.

On Tuesday afternoon, Cindy Meffert saw TV helicopters flying over her York County neighborhood and thought: "Oh, no, I hope they didn't find another body."

Meffert leases a horse pasture not far from where Rohrbach's body was found. She recalled that the body of a man was found nearby about 2 1/2 years ago, and another man was found dead in a burning truck in 2006.

The heavily wooded area off Gold Hill Road is less than five minutes from Interstate 77.

Meffert who lives in the Bailiwick Subdivision said it's obvious why someone would dump a body in the area.

"Coming out of Charlotte on I-77, this is the first heavily wooded area in South Carolina after Carowinds Boulevard," said Meffert. "I used to ride my horse down there off Vista Road, but not anymore; there's no telling what you might find out there."

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