A Montana man this week pleaded guilty to the murder of Miranda Fenner, who was 18 when she was stabbed to death while working at a video rental store in Laurel in November 1998.
Zachary David O’Neill, 39, admitted his guilt in state district court on July 23 after he was charged with deliberate homicide in the killing of the teen more than two decades ago.
— Phoebe Tollefson (@PhoebeTollefson) 23 July 2019
O’Neill told investigators he visited the video rental store, The Movie Store, where Fenner was working, on Nov. 15, 1998, because his mother asked him to rent some movies.
At the time, there were “no problems between himself and Miranda,” according to court documents.
When O’Neill returned back home, his mother noticed he had rented a pornographic movie and sent him to return it. He returned to the store, only this time “he thought he knew he was going to rob it,” court papers state.
O’Neill allegedly waited for other customers to leave the store before threatening Fenner at gunpoint and demanding she give him money from the store. Moments later, he taped the teen up in a back room.
O’Neill told investigators he killed the 18-year-old after he thought she recognized him, ran out the back, and threw the knife out of a car window while on a hunting trip with his stepdad near Jordan, Montana, according to an affidavit (pdf) from law enforcement.
Fenner was found outside the video rental store with slashing injuries to her neck and multiple stab wounds. She was found alive, but died a few hours later at a St. Vincent hospital in Billings.
O’Neill was 18 at the time and had recently moved from Spokane, Washington to live with his stepfather in Laurel.
O’Neill turned himself in on March 19, 2017, at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility in Montana, almost two decades after Fenner’s murder.
He told detectives he decided to confess to his crimes because he felt “ashamed and regret,” as well as depressed and suicidal.
“I killed her and I raped a couple more girls, you know,” O’Neill told investigators at the time.
In the same court hearing this week, O’Neill also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder and rape of a newspaper carrier in Sept. 1998, whose throat was slashed and left for dead. He said he had tried to kill the woman to avoid being caught for the rape.
DNA found at the scene of the attack on the newspaper carrier matched DNA taken from O’Neill in 2017.
A plea agreement between the defense and prosecutors recommended he be sentenced to life in prison.
O’Neill has also confessed to a third crime, the rape of a woman at a park along the Yellowstone River, also in Sept. 1998, according to court documents. The victim in that case died in 2013, but DNA evidence from the scene matched O’Neill’s, according to court documents.
He was not charged with the crime under the terms of his plea deal.
Fenner’s family requested privacy in a statement shared by the Yellowstone County office.
“We are relieved that there is an end in sight for the nightmare that has caused so much heartache and pain to everyone who knew and loved Miranda,” the statement said.
“Nothing will bring Miranda back and we can only pray that other families may be spared the grief that this type of crime inflicts.”
O’Neill’s sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 23 in Billings.