After more than 20 years, detectives’ efforts have paid off, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said Tuesday afternoon in a news conference.
Zachary David O’Neill, 39, was arraigned and pleaded guilty Tuesday to murder in Fenner’s brutal slaying. O’Neill also pleaded guilty to attempted murder and rape in a September 1998 attack on a woman helping her daughter deliver newspapers in Billings’ West End.
Though that woman was also stabbed and had her throat cut, she survived.
O'Neill is set to be sentenced Aug. 23. The Billings Gazette reported that prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed to recommend concurrent life sentences in the two cases.
They have also agreed not to charge O'Neill with a second rape case to which he confessed, the Gazette reported. O'Neill, in return, has agreed to stay in Montana and not be returned to Washington state, where he had been serving a prison sentence since December 2017 on burglary and weapons charges. That sentence is due to end in 2024.
Charging documents in the Fenner case show that the man who first spotted the mortally wounded young woman in front of the video store thought she had been shot in the neck. When Laurel police officers arrived, the front of her body was drenched in blood.
“The amount of blood made it difficult for them to determine where she was hurt,” the court documents state. “As the officers attempted to help her, she was unconscious, unresponsive and did not communicate with them. She had only a weak pulse.”
The officers were able to determine Fenner’s throat had been slashed.
As she was rushed to the hospital and into surgery, where she was soon pronounced dead, officers found disarray inside the store and the back door standing open.
They also found a trail of blood from the back of the store to the front, where Fenner had crawled and dragged herself outside seeking help.
“Detectives and area law enforcement continued their work in the following days and weeks but were unable to locate a suspect or suspects in the homicide of Miranda Fenner,” the charging documents say. “The case remained open and investigators continued their work. Investigators have interviewed hundreds of people since.”
‘I could hear her gurgling on her own blood’
Linder said Tuesday that O’Neill, who himself was 18 when Fenner was killed, was first interviewed by detectives as early as 2000 in connection with the homicide. At the time, he denied involvement but gave detectives the names of other individuals who he said might have committed the crime.
Detectives meticulously investigated the information O’Neill had provided.
“This information was still being looked at as recently as the last couple of years,” Linder said.
Investigators’ focus changed in 2013 when they received a tip that O’Neill was Fenner’s true killer. That tip came from O’Neill’s former stepmother, court documents show.
The woman, whose name was redacted in the charging documents, was unable to give specifics but told investigators O’Neill was a “very violent person” when they lived in Laurel in 1998.
“She described a few specific incidents that troubled her,” the documents state. “She said on several occasions over the years, her husband mentioned that Zach rented a movie on the night of the homicide.”
Cold case detectives Frank Fritz and Shane Bancroft, who took on the case in 2012, confirmed that O’Neill lived in Laurel at the time Fenner was killed, but had no other evidence linking him to the homicide, the documents say.
Fritz and Bancroft received a similar tip in March 2017 -- this time from O’Neill himself. Linder said an intoxicated O’Neill went to the Yellowstone County Jail and told employees there that he’d killed Fenner.
“We had deputies go down there and talk to him and get, basically, what information they could from him,” Linder said. “They said he was obviously either on something or coming down from something, but they took that information and they passed it on to our detectives.”
Watch law enforcement officials talk about Miranda Fenner's slaying, courtesy of KTVQ.
The charging documents detail what O’Neill said happened the night Fenner died. In his March 19, 2017, statement to deputies, as well as his interview with Fritz and Bancroft two days later, O’Neill said he went to The Movie Store and rented some movies that afternoon.
The detectives were able to determine that O’Neill rented four movies the night of the murder on his stepfather’s account. One of the films was a pornographic movie.
O’Neill told the investigators that when he got home with the tapes, his mother made him return the porn film. It was on his second trip to the video store that he said he killed Fenner.
O’Neill told investigators he had been committing robberies and burglaries to support his methamphetamine, marijuana and crack cocaine habit.
“O’Neill said when he went back to the store the second time, he thought he knew he was going to rob it,” the charging documents say. “He said there were other customers in the store at the time, so he waited around in the store for a few minutes to buy some time.”
O’Neill told the detectives once he and Fenner were alone in the store, he pulled a gun on her and demanded the store’s cash. Fenner complied and then put her hands in the air.
He said he forced Fenner into a back room, where he bound her with tape, the document says. He feared she might know who he was, however.
That was when he pulled out his knife.
“I tried to slit her throat, but it was too jagged,” an emotional O’Neill is quoted telling the detectives. “I could hear her gurgling on her own blood.”
O’Neill wept as he described the scene, the charging documents state.
“I can still hear that sound,” he told the detectives.
Read the charging documents in the Miranda Fenner homicide below.
Miranda Fenner Charging Document by National Content Desk on Scribd
Thinking he heard someone come through the front door of the store, O’Neill fled out the back, according to the documents.
O’Neill’s descriptions of the scene and Fenner’s injuries were consistent with crime scene photos and the findings of her medical and autopsy records, the documents state. He also accurately described Fenner’s clothing and glasses she wore the night she was slain.
‘I killed her and I raped a couple more girls’
It was during O’Neill’s March 21, 2017, confession in Fenner’s slaying that he admitted his involvement in the 1998 attack on the newspaper carrier.
“I see this lady and I decided to rape her,” he told the detectives, according to court documents.
O'Neill was charged in the carrier's attack in January of this year, according to KTVQ in Billings. Documents obtained by the news station earlier this year indicate that the woman told police she was walking down the street when she heard someone running up behind her.
She was put in a choke hold and held with a knife to her throat as her assailant forced her between two buildings. He forced her shorts down and raped her, telling her, "I'm not going to hurt you. I'll let you go when I am done," KTVQ reported.
As the woman tucked herself into a fetal position following the sexual assault, her attacker began slashing at her throat. The woman told investigators she pretended to die to get him to leave.
The victim was found with stab and slash wounds to her throat, as well as defensive wounds to her arms, the news station reported.
According to the charging documents in the Fenner case, the DNA from semen found in a used condom at the rape scene matched O’Neill’s genetic profile.
The Billings rape and attempted murder cold case was solved, but Yellowstone County investigators needed more corroboration to charge him with Fenner’s slaying. Fritz and Bancroft talked to a friend of O’Neill’s who had known him since he was 12 years old.
That friend told the detectives O’Neill had admitted his role in the crime to him about two months before he confessed to the investigators.
“S.B. said his jaw dropped and he began to sob because he knew Miranda and her family,” the charging documents say. “He said he became upset and told O’Neill that he did not want to hear any details.”
The friend told the investigators he convinced O’Neill, who lost a stepbrother in an April 2013 fire for which multiple people were convicted, that Fenner’s family deserved the same justice for Miranda that O’Neill’s family got for his stepbrother.
“S.B. said he was the one who drove O’Neill to the Sheriff’s Office in March 2017 for the interview" with detectives, the documents state.
Fritz and Bancroft again interviewed O’Neill that May in Spokane, where he had been arrested on the burglary and weapons charges for which he was ultimately convicted.
At that time, O’Neill gave the investigators information regarding a rape he said he committed in Riverfront Park in Billings, one week after the attack on the newspaper carrier.
O’Neill’s DNA profile matched the one from the suspect in that case, as well, the court documents state. The victim in the third case died in 2013.
O’Neill told detectives, as his friend had, that he began feeling remorse for his crimes after losing his stepbrother, the documents say. He said in his March interview that he was depressed and suicidal.
He also reiterated his guilt in Fenner’s death.
“I killed her and I raped a couple more girls, you know?” the document says.
The investigation into O’Neill’s crimes remains ongoing.
Authorities said Tuesday that charges in the Fenner case took so long because of the need for corroboration. The case was also complicated by the fact that multiple other people had confessed to committing the crime over the years.
“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,” Bancroft said Tuesday. “And, of course, every single one makes us perk up our ears.”
Fenner’s family requested privacy as they deal with the new developments in the case. In a statement they issued Tuesday through Monty Wallis, the cold case coordinator for the Sheriff’s Office, they thanked everyone who has supported them through the two decades it took to find justice, as well as the investigators involved in the case during that time.
“We’re relieved that there is an end in sight for the nightmare that’s caused so much heartache and pain to everyone who knew and loved Miranda,” the family’s statement read. “Unfortunately, nothing will bring Miranda back and we can only pray that other families may be spared the grief that this type of crime inflicts.”
Fenner's mother, Sherry Fenner, told the Gazette in 2012 that they face the pain of her absence each day.
“We live every single day without her, and I hope they live every day with the knowledge that they killed her,” Sherry Fenner told the newspaper.