Chef killed co-worker then sent texts pretending she’d ‘run away with great guy’

The parents of Savannah Gold could not have been more proud of their daughter.

At high school, sporty Savannah had played lacrosse, loved dancing and inspired everyone with her positivity. She also had a creative side and had excelled at art school. Her friends called the animal-lover kind and compassionate.

On 2 August 2017, Savannah, 21, left her parents’ home in Jacksonville, Florida, where she lived, ready for her 5.30pm shift at Bonefish Grill – a seafood chain restaurant, where she worked as a server.

She was dressed in her uniform, which included black trousers and shoes, with a white chef jacket. Savannah left at 5.15pm in her white Kia car. But she never turned up for her shift.

Colleagues at Bonefish Grill contacted Savannah’s family to say that she hadn’t arrived at work. As they grew concerned, Savannah’s parents, Sharon and Daniel, received a text message from her phone that was riddled with spelling mistakes.

It read, ”Hey I just eanted to tell you and mom I met a really great guy and we are running away together I love him and we are leaving to ight ill call you later when we get tk where we are glong.”

Savannah’s brother, Chris, also received a text message. It read, “Heyi quit im leavingwith my boyfriend i cant do this s**t anything im fine justwant to get away.”

Straight away, they were very suspicious and concerned about Savannah’s safety.

They knew Savannah hadn’t sent the messages. They were badly written and had a completely different structure and tone to the words she usually used. But also, there was no way Savannah would leave for work as usual then confess to running away with a man she didn’t even name. It didn’t add up.

They called the police and officers started to investigate. They went to Bonefish Grill and found Savannah’s car in the car park. It was unlocked, and a front tyre had been slashed. Inside was her purse and ID. If there had been a robbery, why hadn’t it been taken?

More to the point, where was Savannah? She wasn’t answering her phone and she wasn’t posting on social media. Someone had sent those messages from her phone and it might have been whoever had taken her. Worried loved ones put together a missing person’s poster and started handing out copies around the area, pleading for information.

Investigators started to look through the surveillance video from outside of the restaurant. They found footage that showed Savannah parking her car just before the start of her shift. Then she approached another car in the car park, with a man in the driver’s seat.

She spoke to him through the driver’s window as though they knew each other and, instead of going into work, she got into the passenger seat.

It looked like they were talking, but alarmingly, the car suddenly started to shake. Car doors opened and closed and it seemed like there was a struggle inside.

Suddenly, a man got out of the vehicle and went over to Savannah’s car. He slashed a front tyre then got back into his car. At 6.04pm, he drove out of the parking lot. Savannah didn’t exit the car, so she must have still been inside.

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Police identified the driver of the car as Lee Rodarte, then 28. He was a co-worker of Savannah’s – a chef and one of the managers at Bonefish. He’d had a short casual relationship with her over the previous months, which was described as “on-and-off”.

At first, Rodarte said he hadn’t seen Savannah. He’d helped his colleagues with missing posters and had offered words of comfort to her family.

But when he was brought in again for driving on a suspended licence, three days after Savannah had gone missing, his story changed many times and he even said that Savannah had got into a green truck driven by a man he didn’t know. The CCTV at the scene proved that was a lie.

Then, he confessed. Rodarte said he’d told multiple stories as he was afraid to tell the truth. He’d met Savannah when she’d arrived at work and they’d got into an argument. He said he’d killed Savannah in his car, but it had been an accident.

He led the police to a nearby lake, where divers recovered her body on 5 August. The autopsy couldn’t determine the exact cause of death, but it was described as a violent murder.

Savannah had been bound and she had burns to 75% of her body, where her remains had been set alight. At Rodarte’s home, crime scene investigators found knives, petrol and bleach, as well as a fire pit.

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Rodarte was charged with second-degree murder and other charges, including tampering with evidence and abuse of a dead body. Savannah’s mum Sharon expressed her complete devastation on social media. “My heart has burst… My baby girl is gone,” she wrote.

The restaurant where Savannah worked was closed as a sign of respect for their colleague, who had brought “joy and happiness” to work every day. A makeshift memorial grew, with piles of flowers and tributes to Savannah.

At first, despite his confession, Rodarte pleaded not guilty. Then in 2019, his lawyers filed a Stand Your Ground law – a motion that is used when you believe you have harmed someone while defending yourself in fear of your own safety. The claim was an attempt to have the case dismissed.

Rodarte said Savannah had asked to talk and that she had taken heroin and was feeling paranoid, so she got in the car. But there were no drugs in Savannah’s system.

Rodarte said he’d confronted Savannah about telling people at work they were dating. He claimed she had said she could say whatever she wanted. Rodarte said he’d tried to push Savannah out of the car and they’d grappled. He alleged she had struck him and he’d fought back.

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He’d grabbed her neck in an attempt to get her to break her hold. Rodarte said he’d heard and felt a pop. The claim that he’d acted in “fear of his life” was rejected by the court.

Rodarte was offered a plea deal. In return for pleading guilty to second-degree murder, he would receive a 40-year sentence. He accepted the deal and the other charges were dropped.

In March this year, Rodarte, now 32, was officially sentenced and Savannah’s family shared their grief through their impact statements. Savannah’s parents both wore a butterfly in honour of their daughter.

“She had a full life ahead of her, full of opportunity, and she did not get to experience the most beautiful parts,” Sharon said. “Savannah was an absolute shining light in our lives.”

Daniel said his daughter could have “changed countless lives” if she had been given the chance to live and he spoke of his agony over her final moments.

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“As I watched the video of Savannah struggling for her life, Rodarte’s car violently shaking back and forth, I saw her lion heart and glowing colours for the last time,” he added.

Savannah’s brother, Chris, spoke. “I’ve been living in an emotional pit since then, afraid to open up to anyone,” he said. “Even now, I struggle to put into words what she truly meant to me… Not a day goes by I don’t cry. Hopefully, this brings some kind of closure.”

Rodarte bowed his head and didn’t make a statement.

The judge was also given letters from Savannah’s friends to read and he said the words and what he’d heard at the hearing will “stay with me as long as I am on the bench”. Rodarte was sentenced to the agreed 40 years.

Rodarte had used Savannah’s phone to send messages, claiming she’d disappeared with a “really great guy”. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

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