Jacksonville man accused in coworker’s murder agrees to plead guilty

Lee Rodarte charged in killing of Bonefish Grill waitress Savannah Gold

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Less than a month after an appeals court denied a stand your ground petition for a Jacksonville man who claimed he accidentally killed his on-again, off-again girlfriend in self-defense, that man has reached a plea deal with prosecutors, the State Attorney’s Office confirmed.

Lee Rodarte appeared in court Tuesday and agreed to plead guilty to charges of second-degree murder and evidence tampering in the death of Savannah Gold. He’s scheduled to formally enter that plea during a Thursday afternoon disposition hearing.

Attorney Obinna Anum, not affiliated with the case, says the plea agreement is a win for Gold’s loved ones.

“The good news for the family is this avoids a trial. A trial where witnesses would have to testify, perhaps even some of those family members,” Anum said.

Gold, 21, was initially reported missing Aug. 3, 2017. Police later determined that she met with Rodarte the day before at the Bonefish Grill where the couple worked. Rodarte was arrested a couple of days later.

Surveillance footage released as part of the discovery process shows Gold getting into Rodarte’s car outside the restaurant before she disappeared. The vehicle can be seen shaking and later driving away from the parking lot.

Rodarte claims the pair got into an argument and Gold grew violent. His petition states he was acting out of fear.

According to the petition, “In pain and fearing imminent serious bodily harm, the defendant grabbed Ms. Gold’s neck in an effort to break her grip.” As they struggled, Rodarte shifted his weight and placed her in the backseat of the car, which is when he heard and felt a pop in Gold’s neck, the petition states.

The trial judge first denied the petition, but Rodarte’s attorney appealed that ruling to the First District Court of Appeals. The case had been on hold since then, while the appeals court mulled over a ruling. The appeals court later sided with the initial judge’s ruling.

Rodarte at first denied having anything to do with Gold’s disappearance, but police said he acknowledged killing her and then dumping her body. That information led investigators to a Westside pond, where they recovered Gold’s body.

Besides surveillance video showing Rodarte’s car near the pond where Gold was found, police said they found knives, gasoline, bleach and a fire pit at his home.

A March 11 sentencing date has been set.

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