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Prosecutors: Man killed Laurel woman in 1998 to cover up robbery

Posted: 8:33 PM, Jul 23, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-24 00:19:11-04

BILLINGS- Zachary David O’Neill told detectives he killed Miranda Fenner in 1998 in Laurel to cover up a robbery to support his drug habit, and he confessed to two other crimes, including an unsolved rape in Riverfront Park in Billings around the same time, according to charging documents released Tuesday.

Those documents presented fresh details about a case that made national headlines as the trail for the killer grew cold and provided a public record of the timeline authorities worked under nail down the case.

Detectives had interviewed hundreds of people in connections with this case over the years.

Here’s what happened, according to the documents filed by Yellowstone County Deputy Chief Attorney Ed Zink:

Yellowstone County detectives first heard O’Neill’s name in connection to the investigation in 2000, but developed one of their first leads in October 2013. A woman called and said she suspected her ex-husband’s son, O’Neill, because of his violent tendencies. She provided few specifics, but she did say O’Neill rented a movie from The Movie Store, where Fenner was killed, on the night of her murder.

At the time, detectives determined O’Neill lived in the area at the time but had no other evidence.

In March 2017, on two separate occasions, O’Neill walked into the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and said he wanted to confess to the crime. The first time, O’Neill said he had recently used meth and appeared to be coming down off a high.

He told Dets. Frank Fritz and Shane Bancroft that he was living with his stepfather at the time of the murder and committing thefts and burglaries to support his drug habit of marijuana, meth and crack cocaine. He rented four movies from The Movie Store on Nov. 15, 1998, including a pornographic film, then went back after his mom told him to return the smut flick.

O’Neill said he waited until other customers left, then pointed a gun at Fenner, 18, and told her, “Give me the money.” He said he taped her up so he could leave but then worried she could identify him. That’s when he decided to slit her throat, and he fled when he thought he heard someone come in.

Fenner was found by a passerby who thought she had been shot. She died later that night at St. Vincent Hospital, now known as St. Vincent Healthcare.

Yellowstone County authorities did not arrest O’Neill that day because they said they needed to corroborate his testimony. They next talked to him in May 2017, where he confessed from a jail cell in Washington state, where he was serving time on burglary charges.

oneill, zachary david
Zachary David O’Neill.

During his interview, O’Neill also admitted to the Sept. 5, 1998, rape and attempted murder of a newspaper carrier in Billings, and he’s also been charged with that crime.

In addition, he admitted to a second, previously unreported rape in Riverfront Park in Billings on Sept. 12, 1998. Fritz pulled up records of that report and was able to match DNA evidence collected from the victim at the time and O’Neill.

The victim died in 2013.

O’Neill has agreed to a plea deal for life in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for August.