JACKSONVILLE, Fla — A man accused of murdering his onetime girlfriend and dumping her burned body in a Westside pond has been sentenced to 40 years in Florida state prison.
Lee Rodarte, 32, listened to victim impact statements before being sentenced as part of a negotiated sentence. The judge said he will get credit for time served since August 5, 2017.
Rodarte pleaded guilty last month to the second-degree murder of Savannah Gold. He previously admitted killing the 21-year-old server at the Bonefish Grill in Mandarin in August 2017 -- where he also worked -- but claimed he did so in self-defense.
"Savannah could have changed countless lives ... Savannah’s murderer has muted my beautiful daughter’s voice," Dan Gold, Savannah's father, said during the sentencing hearing.
"If Savannah never had a chance to meet Lee Rodarte, would she still be alive? As Savannah’s father, I’ve strived to be patient, loving and a good listener. Why wasn’t I striving to teach her self-defense," Dan Gold said. "Why didn’t I strive to teach her to use a gun? Why didn’t I strive to teach her how evil people can be? These regrets will forever be with me. My daughter’s murder has changed my core values. In a way that isolates me and causes mistrust at every level."
Dan Gold, Savannah's mother, Sherri Gold and her brother, Chris Gold all gave statements in court. They all emotionally addressed the judge trying to put into words what Savannah meant to them.
"She loved fiercely," Sherri Gold said. "She gave freely. She was funny, kind and a fantastic dancer. She had color and art in her soul. My best friend. My sweet baby. My heart," she said.
Rodarte was seen crying at times in the courtroom as Savannah's family read their statements. Read the full statements below.
"How could we ever know what the impact 21 would have on us?" asked Sherri Gold, Savannah Gold's mother.
She said Savannah had a 21 tattoo, it was her jersey number in sports, the age she was killed and the year Rodarte is sentenced to prison.
"She loved an underdog and I know that’s what ultimately took her life," Sherri Gold said.
"The only way I can continue on is to know the last thing she would want is for this to break us. Her dad said he doesn’t want this to blacken our hearts. That we have to continue Savannah’s love and give back as she would’ve wanted," Sherri Gold said.
Savannah was a talented artist and lacrosse player, her family members said.
“Savannah was a hard working person who would do anything for anyone," Chris Gold said. "She was a perfectionist who strived to only do something if she knew she could give it her all," he said.
"How do I put into words what she meant to me? How do I explain that I lost a part of me when she was killed? Not a day goes by without me thinking about her. I have been living in an emotional pit since then, afraid to open up to anyone," he said. "Hopefully, this sentencing will bring me and my family happiness, even if it’s just a small amount of closure," Chris Gold said.
Dan Gold added that Thursday was the start of healing for the family.
"It is extremely important to me to not give Savannah's murderer any more control of my life," he said.
"To our family, our extended family and to the members of the community, our hearts have begun to heal because of your love and support. We love Savannah and we never realized how many of you did also," Dan Gold said.
The judge told Savannah's family before they left the courtroom Thursday that what they said in their statements will stay with him for as long as he serves on the bench.
Watch the full sentencing hearing below:
The case moved slowly, which has been uniquely frustrating to Sherri Gold who is battling Stage 4 colon cancer.
“Since Savannah’s passed away, the cancer has come back twice -- and aggressive,” Sherri Gold told First Coast News in late 2019 “If we’re talking another trial six months down the line, six months could be a very long time for me."
In court Thursday, Sherri Gold talked about how her cancer brought herself and Savannah closer together. She said Savannah was accepted to Savannah College of Art and Design and offered scholarships for lacrosse and art. She decided not to go. Her mom had just had her kidney removed and faced six months of chemotherapy.
Sherri Gold told the courtroom Thursday it was important to Savannah to stay close to home. Savannah took care of her mom, got her lunch and brought her to chemotherapy.
"Cancer I consider to be one of the best things that ever happened to me because it brought us closer together," Sherri Gold said.
Just days before the trial was set to begin in 2019, Rodarte filed a surprise "Stand Your Ground' claim, which was rejected by the local court and again by the District Court of Appeals in January.