JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As his victim’s parents watched on a livestream feed, Lee Rodarte pleaded guilty Thursday, admitting that he killed his 21-year-old Bonefish Grill co-worker in 2017.
Rodarte, 32, entered a guilty plea to a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Savannah Gold. He had also faced charges of tampering with evidence and abuse of a dead body, but those charges were dropped as part of the plea agreement.
The plea came less than a month after an appeals court denied a stand your ground petition for Rodarte, who claimed he accidentally killed Gold, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, in self-defense.
As part of the plea deal with prosecutors, Rodarte will be sentenced to 40 years in prison during a sentencing hearing March 11. He had been eligible for life if convicted by a jury.
Gold’s parents were watching the proceedings Thursday, including the prosecutor’s recounting of the details of the case.
Gold 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 SYG petition stated 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.