Fla. Man Killed Coworker at Bonefish Grill, Then Pretended to Be Victim While Texting Her Parents

Lee Rodarte Jr. was convicted of murdering his coworker, Savannah Gold

Photo: Savannah Gold/Facebook

A Florida man will spend 40 years in prison for the murder of a coworker who vanished in 2017.

Lee Rodarte Jr., 30, pleaded guilty to second degree murder charges last month, after admitting to killing 21-year-old Savannah Gold in 2017. Rodarte was a culinary manager at a Bonefish Grill in Jacksonville. He had an on-again, off-again relationship with Gold, who also worked at the restaurant.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys negotiated a sentence of 40 years, with credit for time served. A judge approved the deal last Thursday afternoon.

Gold went missing in August 2017 after she arrived at work — but never made it into the building. Her unlocked car was later found in the parking lot; a tire was slashed and her purse was on the front seat.

The Jacksonville sheriff watched surveillance video from the parking lot. In a news release at the time, authorities said that Gold arrived at work that day at 5:31 p.m. She then got in the passenger seat of Rodarte's vehicle and, "at 5:45 p.m., the video surveillance shows what appears to be a possible struggle inside of the vehicle."

After the apparent altercation, Rodarte was "observed walking to the victim's vehicle, opening the drivers-side door of the vehicle, and leaning inside," according to the sheriff.

A few minutes later, the video showed Rodarte driving away with Gold still in the vehicle, authorities.

Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

Within hours of Gold's disappearance, her family began receiving odd text messages sent from her phone — purportedly from her.

"Hey i just wanted to tell you and mom i met a really great guy and we're running away together," read one message sent to her father, Daniel Gold, according to a missing persons report. "I love him and we're leaving tonight i'll call you later when we get to where we are going."

Other family members and friends reported getting similar messages, and her relatives became instantly suspicious.

"The spelling was all whacked out," Daniel Gold told local TV station WJAX. "It looked really strange."

Investigators believe the text messages actually began after Gold was dead — and that they were sent by Rodarte.

After the family began to search for Gold, Rodarte helped them look and even handed out "missing person" flyers.

When authorities interviewed Rodarte days after the disappearance, he changed his story several times before confessing to the crime, saying that he killed Gold in the parking lot before disposing of her body in a nearby lake. A dive team later found her remains.

With Rodarte behind bars, the Gold family says they're beginning to heal from the tragedy

"To our family, extended family and community, our hearts have begun to heal because of your love and support," said Daniel Gold said in a statement to Action News Jacksonville after the sentencing hearing. "We love Savannah, and we never realized how many of you did also."

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