Police: Co-worker admits killing 21-year-old, dumping body

Accused killer seen passing out missing person flyers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A co-worker of a 21-year-old woman missing from Mandarin since Wednesday afternoon admitted to killing her and told investigators where they could find her body, Jacksonville police announced Sunday.

A homicide detective, assisted by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office dive team, found the body believed to be that of Savannah Gold on Saturday night in a lake at the end of Club Duclay Drive, off Blanding Boulevard near Collins Road.

Detectives said Lee Rodarte, 28, who police said was a culinary manager at Bonefish Grill on San Jose Boulevard, admitted to killing Gold after police confronted him with discrepancies between his statement and what was seen on surveillance video in the parking lot of the restaurant.

"It shows Rodarte pull into the parking lot and back into a parking space approximately 25 minutes before Savannah arrives. At about 5:30 (p.m.), Savannah pulls up and parks a few spaces to the side of Rodarte," Lt. Steve Gallaher said.

According to the arrest report, Gold left her home at 5:15 p.m. and arrived at the restaurant at 5:31 p.m.

Police said Gold, who also worked at the restaurant and who police described as Rodarte's casual girlfriend, walked over to his car, talked for a few minutes, then got in the car. According to the report, something happened about 15 minutes later.

"On video, it appeared a struggle took place in the car and the car was shaking (about 5:45 p.m.) and the door was opening and closing. Rodarte exits the car after a few minutes, walks over to her car, takes an object out of it and puts it in his. He then returns to her car and appears to puncture the front left tire of her vehicle. He returned to his vehicle and after a few minutes, he drove away (at 6:04 p.m.), and Savannah never exited the car," Gallaher said.

After police arrested Rodarte on an outstanding traffic warrant at the restaurant about 7:15 p.m. Saturday, he admitted to killing Gold and told police where they could find her body, JSO said. 

Rodarte was charged with murder and tampering with evidence, and booked into the Duval County jail at 10:49 p.m.. Gallaher said an autopsy will be conducted Sunday or Monday to confirm that the body is Gold's and to determine her cause of death.

Gold's family and friends began searching for her after she didn't report to work Wednesday evening. Her unlocked car with a flat tire and her purse still inside was found in the restaurant parking lot, and relatives received text messages from her phone, saying she had met someone and was running away with him, according to a police report.

IMAGES: Savannah Gold's family shares photos

But Gold's family said those texts were out of character, noting that they did not appear to be typed in Gold's style. They also said they didn't believe she was involved romantically with anyone.

News4Jax spoke with one of Gold's co-worker Sunday, who said she saw Rodarte handing out missing person flyers on Thursday. Gold's mother told News4Jax that on Friday, Rodarte spoke face-to-face with her father. 

"I feel like he (Rodarte) is a sociopath because he expressed his concern over Savannah's disappearance to Dan to his face on Friday," Gold's mother said.

Gold's father visited the Westside lake, which remained an active crime scene Sunday morning, and left candles and a stuffed bear as a small memorial. He wasn't ready to give an interview but said from what he was told about her death, he was proud she fought for her life.

"We are going to be here representing our daughter every step of the way. And we are not going to hide from this," Gold's father said. "We are going to celebrate her life and we are not going to hide from the tragedy this is for sure and we want him to know that you were not going to intimidate us. You were not going to scare us there is no chance. We are going to be here."

A representative of Bonefish Grill issued the following statement Sunday:

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of Savannah and will miss the joy and happiness she brought to work every day. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with family and friends during this difficult time, including the people she worked with here at Bonefish Grill."

Rodarte made his first appearance before a judge Sunday, where he was formally charged with murder and third-degree evidence tampering. He is being held without bail. His next court date is scheduled for Wednesday. 

The restaurant closed its doors Sunday. There was no word regarding when the location will reopen. 

Gold's family has set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for expenses. Click here to donate.