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Man accused of killing co-worker, dumping body pleads not guilty

Prosecutors say man killed 21-year-old in car outside restaurant

Lee Rodarte appears in court for arraignment
Lee Rodarte appears in court for arraignment

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A co-worker of a 21-year-old woman who police said admitted to killing her and told investigators where they could find her body pleaded not guilty Tuesday morning to second-degree murder in her death.

Lee Rodarte, 28, is also charged with tampering with evidence in the death of Savannah Gold, who was missing for several days before investigators found her body in a lake at the end of Club Duclay Drive, off Blanding Boulevard near Collins Road.

Police said Rodarte, 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, 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. 

Gold's family and friends began searching for her after she didn't report to work, and 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.

About the Authors:

Florida-born multi-media journalist pays special attention to issues in St. Johns County.