BILLINGS — Investigators with the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office described a hard-to-prove case Friday at the sentencing hearing for the two-decade-old, cold case murder of Miranda Fenner.
Questions have arisen about why it took so long to press charges against Zachary O'Neill, 39, who first told deputies in 2017 he killed Fenner at a video rental store in Laurel. So Detective Shane Bancroft addressed those questions directly on the stand before sentencing proceedings and testimony began.
Bancroft told the court the scope of this 1998 cold case was larger than anything he’s encountered in his career.
“(It was) a horrific crime that has gone unsolved for many years and left the community scared and vulnerable,” said Bancroft.
Bancroft said his agency interviewed hundreds of witnesses over the course of 20 years where some had merit but other tips did not.
“It wasn’t always direct, but when the story came out there was always some glaring detail that didn’t match up,” he said. “Someone looking for street cred.”
That’s also why Bancroft said he was initially skeptical of O’Neill’s confession, which he gave voluntarily after walking into the sheriff's office. O’Neill at the time, didn’t seem well, said Bancroft.
“He was upset, he was a little confused but nervous and polite and cooperative. He seemed nervous and wanted to know what happened next, even before he discussed the crime,” said Bancroft. “I was skeptical.”
However, O’Neill’s account was consistent with the details of Fenner’s murder. Still, O’Neill was never taken into custody. Montana law requires more than a confession, said Yellowstone County attorney Scott Twito, and Bancroft responded that detectives had to verify his story.
That’s when Bancroft testified that the course of the investigation changed.
“There wasn’t an ah-ha moment if you will, but the longer we sat there, the more it became plausible,” said Bancroft.
O’Neill was sent home, but as detectives followed up on the confession, he also disclosed information about another rape that occurred in Billings around the same time as the Fenner homicide. It was a separate attack on a woman working an early morning newspaper route in September of 1998.
O’Neill attempted to murder the woman by repeatedly stabbing her, and he also brutally raped her at a location just off Broadwater Avenue.
A DNA swab was taken from O’Neill during his confession, which eventually connected him to the attempted murder and rape.
The information was too similar for investigators to disregard. O’Neill’s story lined up, and that led authorities to believe O’Neill’s confession concerning Fenner was true.
“We worked for years on this case, and we worked hard and interviewed many people and to come to a conclusion that he was responsible was a great breakthrough but also frustrating,” said Bancroft.
They never developed into solid leads, and O’Neill wasn’t close to being on investigators' list of suspects when he confessed, according to Bancroft. And even after his admission of guilt back in 2017, there were still too many questions for authorities to make an arrest.
Friday in court, Bancroft acknowledged that without the confession of O'Neill himself, chances are Friday's sentencing hearing would never have taken place.
“He wasn’t anywhere near our suspect list. It was a bitter pill to swallow,” said Bancroft. “I know that Mr. O’Neill’s actions have destroyed lives and hurt this community. No matter what happens here today, we are very sorry for that."
O'Neill was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences. One was for the Fenner case, one for the newspaper carrier's attempted murder and one for her rape.