JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Wearing purple butterflies on their lapels in honor of their slain daughter, the parents of a 21-year-old Jacksonville woman murdered in 2017 held back a flood of emotion Thursday as they stood on the courthouse steps and thanked all those responsible for bringing their daughter’s killer to justice.
About a month after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Savannah Gold, his Bonefish Grill co-worker, Lee Rodarte was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison. The judge gave Rodarte credit for the time he has already spent in jail, meaning he has about 37 years left on his sentence. Rodarte had been eligible for life if convicted by a jury.
Although the sentence was predetermined as part of Rodarte’s plea deal, Gold’s parents and brother shared victim impact statements during the sentencing hearing, which was the first time they had all been inside the courtroom since the pandemic began last year.
Rodarte kept his back turned to Gold’s family and wiped tears as he listened to Gold’s father talk about her lion’s heart.
Daniel Gold said he witnessed his daughter’s lion’s heart for the last time as he watched the surveillance video of her struggling for her life with Rodarte inside his car.
Gold’s brother spoke about his favorite memories with her on Christmas morning and how holidays have changed forever.
“Not a day goes by I don’t cry,” Christopher Gold said. “Hopefully, this brings some kind of closure.”
Gold was 21 years old when she was killed. Her mother, Sharon Gold, said Gold spoke about the impact the number 21 has had on their family. She said 21 was the number Savannah wore in sports, 21 was tattooed on her arm and ’21 is the year her killer goes to prison.
“My love for her is endless and boundless. The only way I can continue on is to know the last thing she would want for us is for this to break us,” said Sharon Gold, who described her daughter as artistic, kind and her best friend who helped her through chemotherapy. “Her dad says we can’t let this continue to blacken our hearts. We have to continue Savannah’s love and give back because she would have wanted (that).”
Sharon Gold said the purple butterflies on her jacket and mask represented her daughter’s spirit being at ease.
The judge said Gold’s mother will receive nearly $9,000 in restitution and roughly $12,000 will go toward a victim trust fund.
After the hearing, Daniel Gold gave a brief statement to the media.
“Today is not a happy day for us. This crime cost my daughter her life. It destroyed another life. And it’s impacted many other lives negatively,” Daniel Gold said. “We are very grateful to all the professionals involved in bringing Savannah home and to those who have assured her assailant is held accountable.”
He thanked the detective in charge of Savannah’s case, the prosecutors and the judges by name, saying it was their work that brought Savannah home, gave her family the confidence to trust the process and kept the case moving forward in spite of the ongoing pandemic.
“To our family, extended family and community, our hearts have begun to heal because of your love and support,” Daniel Gold said. “We loved Savannah, and we never realized how many of you did also.”
Rodarte’s plea came less than a month after an appeals court denied his stand your ground petition, in which he claimed he accidentally killed Gold — his on-again, off-again girlfriend — in self-defense.
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 later 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.