Man Pleads guilty in Montana teen killing in 1998 (Details).
Zachary David O’Neill pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing 18-year-old Miranda Fenner, who was stabbed to death at a Laurel video store in 1998. Fenner managed to drag herself to the store’s main entrance, where passers-by found her.
Fenner’s mother, Sherry Fenner, has spent years handing out flyers, purchasing advertisements and billboards, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of her daughter’s killer.
The case has been featured on the Discovery Channel, “The Montel Williams Show” and Community Seven Television in Billings.
Tuesday’s court hearing was scheduled as a status hearing in an attempted homicide case against the 39-year-old O’Neill, who was also accused of attacking, raping and cutting the throat of a newspaper carrier before leaving her for dead on Billings’ West End on the morning of Sept. 5, 1998. He admitted Tuesday to that attempted homicide and rape charge, and was then arraigned in the Fenner case and pleaded guilty.
Dressed in a purple button-down and black slacks, he entered a courtroom packed with law enforcement officers, victim witness advocates, judicial staff and others.
Judge Jessica Fehr ordered his shackles removed but warned him first.
“OK, Mr. O’Neill, I’ve had your handcuffs removed so that you can assist Miss Copenhaver as we proceed through this hearing today,” she said. “But I want you to understand that I expect you to behave and to respect this courtroom, OK?”
O’Neill, who was 18 in 1998, was living in Laurel at the time.
He went to The Movie Store on Nov. 15, 1998, to rent some movies on the request of his mother. He rented four or five movies, one of which was a pornographic movie, according to charging documents. He rented the movies from Fenner, and later told investigators there were “no problems between himself and Miranda.”
He returned home. His mother discovered he had rented porn and told him to return it. He went back to the movie store, and “he thought he knew he was going to rob it,” court documents say.
He then waited for other customers to leave and then he killed Fenner, according to his admission.
In the course of the robbery, he attacked Fenner with a knife. In charging documents he told investigators that he decided to kill her to avoid getting caught. He later dumped the knife he used near Jordan while on a hunting trip with his father.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed to recommend concurrent life sentences in both the Fenner case and the attempted homicide.
Prosecutors have agreed not to charge another rape case from 1998 to which sheriff’s detectives said O’Neill also confessed.
That rape, on Sept. 12, 1998, occurred in Riverfront Park, O’Neill said, according to charges. The victim died in 2013.
Fehr, the judge, said materials from the Montana State Crime Lab had been given to prosecutors for the Fenner case in the past several days and then shared with O’Neill and his defense attorney.
O’Neill’s sentencing for the attempted homicide case has been set for August. He’s agreed to remain in Montana, and waived his right to seek a return back to Washington, where he was serving a prison sentence on other charges. That sentence expires in 2024.
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said the investigation was a lengthy process due to the “need to corroborate.” O’Neill had been interviewed by investigators in connection to Fenner’s murder in 2000, but he denied involvement, according to court docs.
In 2013, a former Laurel resident told detectives she believed O’Neill might have been involved in the murder. The resident had recently moved back to Montana, which brought up memories of the murder, court documents say.
Investigators confirmed that O’Neill lived in Laurel at the time, but there was no other evidence at that time linking him to the murder.
Sheriff Mike Linder said hundreds of individuals had been interviewed over the decades of investigations and several people had previously confessed to Fenner’s murder. While speaking, Linder choked up several times.
“We had several people actually say they were responsible for it,” Linder said.
Detective Shane Bancroft said someone had confessed for the murder last week in a “round about way.” At least five people have confessed to her murder over the years, he said.
“I’m going to say that we had about five to seven people through the years have either directly or indirectly confessed to this crime,” he said. “And of course every single one makes us perk up our ears.”
In March 2017 O’Neill walked into the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and asked to speak to deputies to confess to a crime. Then he told deputies and confessed to Fenner’s murder. Deputies noted that O’Neill seemed to be “coming down off meth,” according to court documents.
In a second interview with investigators, O’Neill again confessed to Fenner’s murder. In an interview with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, O’Neill also confessed to attacking and raping the newspaper carrier, according to charges.
During that interview he spoke about the night of the Fenner case. He included several details about the crime and crime scene that were not known to the public, and he told investigators that he knew more than what had been included in the paper. It was at that time investigators swabbed O’Neill for DNA that would later be used to identify him in the rape of the newspaper carrier.
Initially O’Neill said he didn’t care too much about what he’d done, but later he started to feel “ashamed and regret.” He said he attempted to turn himself in a couple times.
A friend of O’Neill’s, identified as “S.B.” in charging documents, told investigators he drove O’Neill to the detention facility after urging his friend to confess to the murder. He had learned of the murder about two months prior.
S.B. said O’Neill was prompted to confess after seeing a conviction in relation with his stepbrother’s death in April 2013. He felt justice was served from the conviction and S.B. told O’Neill that the Fenner family deserved the same justice.
Cold case detectives Bancroft and Frank Fritz have worked as lead investigators on this case since 2012, and have worked on the case for 11 years. During the process they said it was easy to get bogged down in the details. They learned to “take the blinders off, and don’t have tunnel vision,” Fritz said.
“At times we got too focused on one piece of evidence,” Bancroft said.
In a statement the family expressed relief of the closure of the “nightmare that has caused so much heartache and pain to everyone who knew and loved Miranda.”
They thanked the local agencies involved in the investigations, and thanked everyone who has “shared our posters and signs over the years; everyone who didn’t give up and continued to search for answers; everyone who provided so much love and support.”
The family requested privacy going forward.
“We live every single day without her, and I hope they live every day with the knowledge that they killed her,” Sherry Fenner, Miranda’s mother, told the Gazette in 2012.
O’Neill was brought to Montana from Washington, where he had been serving a prison sentence on charges of burglary and unlawful firearm possession in Spokane County. That sentence expires in 2024. O’Neill was booked into prison on those charges in December 2017, according to the Washington Department of Corrections.
O’Neill’s criminal history in Yellowstone County includes convictions for criminal mischief in 2015, misdemeanor assault in 2006 and burglary and theft in 1997.
In the 2006 case, O’Neill punched a woman in the eye as she was exiting her vehicle after parking on Montana Avenue one afternoon, according to charges.
The woman said she’d been reaching for something on her passenger side when she noticed O’Neill standing between her and her car door and was staring at her in a “creepy” way. She said she asked him to leave but instead he punched her. She then kicked him in the chest to knock him backward so she could shut her door.
The responding officer located O’Neill and asked him if he had done any drugs that day and, according to charges, he replied: “No, I ran out.”
In 1998 at the time the rape was reported, police were looking for one suspect in two attacks.
One was the rape and attempted homicide for which O’Neill is now charged.
The other was an attack against a 17-year-old girl who was locked out of her home and was waiting on her front porch for her parents, according to Gazette archives. The man hit and kicked the girl and tried to tear off her shirt, she told police. He fled when she screamed, police said.