A ray of light in the darkness

Guilty plea entered in 1998 murder of Laurel teen
Chris Mcconnell
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Outlook photo by Chris McConnell                        Laurel Police Chief Stan Langve reads a prepared statement at a Tuesday press conference in Billings. One hour earlier, Zachary David O’Neill pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide in the 1998 murder of Miranda Fenner which occurred on Nov. 15, 1998 in Laurel. Yellowstone County Cold Case Detectives Shane Bancroft and Frank Fritz are seen with volunteer Monty Wallace.

Outlook photo by Chris McConnell
          
            Laurel Police Chief Stan Langve reads a prepared statement at a Tuesday press conference in Billings. One hour earlier, Zachary David O’Neill pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide in the 1998 murder of Miranda Fenner which occurred on Nov. 15, 1998 in Laurel. Yellowstone County Cold Case Detectives Shane Bancroft and Frank Fritz are seen with volunteer Monty Wallace.

Miranda Fenner

Miranda Fenner

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Zachary David O’Neill

Zachary David O’Neill

A specter haunting a Laurel family and the Laurel community for more than 20 years was unmasked in District Court on July 23 when Zachary David O’Neill pleaded guilty to the 1998 murder of 18–yearold Miranda Fenner.

On Nov. 15, 1998 at 8:23 p.m. Laurel police responded to The Movie Store on West Main St. for a report of a shooting. A passerby advised a female had been shot in the neck. Officers found Miranda Fenner unconscious and unresponsive with a weak pulse. She had been stabbed and slashed in the neck and had a defensive wound on her hand. Fenner was transported by the Laurel ambulance to a waiting HELP Flight helicopter and then to St. Vincent’s Hospital where she succumbed to her injuries at 10:01 p.m.

Detectives and area law enforcement investigated the Fenner homicide in the days and weeks following her death but were unable to identify any suspects. They conducted hundreds of interviews over the next decade–and–a–half and in 2012 the homicide was transferred to the Cold Case Unit which included Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office Detectives Frank Fritz and Shane Bancroft, along with several volunteers.

On Tuesday afternoon in Judge Fehr’s Thirteenth Judicial District Court, O’Neill pleaded guilty to Deliberate Homicide for the Fenner murder. He also pled guilty to Attempted Deliberate Homicide and Sexual Intercourse without Consent for a Sept. 5, 1998 rape and attempted murder on Broadwater Ave. in Billings.

In 2013 detectives received a tip from a female who contacted the YCSO and stated she believed her ex–husband’s stepson, identified as O’Neill, had been involved in the Fenner homicide. She called him a violent person and said several incidents had troubled her while she was living in Laurel. She also mentioned her ex said O’Neill had rented a movie on the night of the murder. Det. Bancroft was able to confirm O’Neill lived in Laurel during that time, but was unable to link him to the homicide.

Detectives had been following leads for two decades and said several people had confessed to the murder over the years, including one individual only two weeks ago. But what turned out to be the break in this case, and two other unsolved Yellowstone County rape cases, was a confession from O’Neill himself.

According to court documents, on March 19, 2017 O’Neill came to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility under the influence of methamphetamine and said he wanted to confess to the murder of Fenner.

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle” — St. Francis of Assisi

 

He said he had rented four movies from the Movie Store on Nov. 15, 1998 and when his mother found one of them to be pornographic in nature she made him return it. He had used methamphetamine that day and brought a .22 handgun and knife to the Movie Store with the intent of robbing it. O’Neill said he held Fenner at gunpoint, who was compliant and handed over the money, then he forced her to the back room and taped her up with the intent of leaving the store. He told detectives he thought she knew him and said, “I didn’t want to get in trouble for this, that’s when I decided to do it.” He also said he “didn’t care too much at first about what I had done.”

When Detectives spoke with him again on March 21, 2017 he described the murder in detail and stated he disposed of the knife on a hunting trip with his dad and had traded the gun for crack cocaine in Spokane, Wash.

When asked why he was confessing after all this time he said after his brother had been killed he began trying to turn himself in and had been in and out of jails and institutions for years. He claimed he was depressed and suicidal and said, “I killed her and I raped a couple more girls, you know.”

Before O’Neill was released, detectives obtained a DNA sample from him and began to investigate his claims. On April 18, 2017 the crime lab reported the DNA profile obtained from evidence left near the scene of unsolved rape and attempted murder on Broadwater Ave. in Billings on Sept. 5, 1998 matched O’Neill. He had said, “I see this lady and I decided to rape her.” He then said he tried to kill her to avoid going to prison.

In May 2017, Detectives Fritz and Bancroft interviewed O’Neill in Spokane and asked him about another sexual assault to which he had confessed. He stated he had taken a woman to Riverfront Park in Billings and raped her, but said he did not otherwise “hurt or kill her.” In early 2019 the crime lab matched O’Neill’s DNA to evidence collected from the female, who passed away in 2013.

O’Neill was extradited from Washington state in February of this year where he was serving time for burglary. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito credited the collaboration of the Montana and Washington governors to get the suspect extradited back to Montana. “It took hard legal work to get him here to plead guilty. Thank you to the Governors of Montana and Washington,” Twito said.

The homicide occurred a year before current Laurel Police Chief Stan Langve was hired at LPD and he read a statement at Tuesday’s press conference stating the unsolved homicide has been a “proverbial dark cloud we’ve been fighting against.”

Langve continued, “I hope this represents a sense of justice for Miranda Fenner’s family. I hope this guilty plea allows some closure to the family and friends, so they can heal, not completely, but more fully. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. This case has affected the community of Laurel for a very long time. Our very social conscience and identity was shaken by the very nature of this crime. I hope on this day the community can come together to support those most affected by this act. It’s the culmination of decades of dogged investigation by the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department and the Laurel Police Department. It shows how various law enforcement agencies can come together in the common pursuit for justice. I’m grateful for all the hard work done by past and current investigators, the Sheriff’s department, Cold Case Unit investigators and the Yellowstone County Attorney’s office.”

O’Neill is scheduled for sentencing in Judge Fehr’s court on August 23, where he faces life sentences on all charges.

 

Family message

The following message is from Miranda Fenner’s family:

We wish to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their kindness and support over the past 20 years. We are relieved there is an end in sight for the nightmare that has caused so much heartache and pain to everyone who knew and loved Miranda. 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.

We wish to thank the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, the Cold Case Unit, and all the agencies and individuals involved in this investigation. Their dedication and time are greatly appreciated.

We wish to thank everyone who shared our posters and signs over the years, everyone who didn’t give up and continued to search for answers and everyone who provided so much love and support.

Please understand our family is still dealing with the recent developments in Miranda’s case. We respectfully ask for privacy at this time.

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