BILLINGS – As the father of an 18-year-old video store clerk spoke to her confessed killer, a slide show flashed on a monitor in a Montana courtroom Friday: the young woman smiling with a fish dangling from a pole, laughing with her brother perched atop a boulder and posing in a formal dress before a school dance.
“You are lucky I am not the judge because I would have you hung to death,” Mike Fenner told Zachary David O’Neill before he received a life sentence for Miranda Fenner’s 1998 murder and the rape of a second victim.
“God will deliver the justice and I will see you in hell. I will go just to see you.”
O’Neill, 39, remained slumped in his chair, his head down, through much of the proceedings. He told the Associated Press in a jailhouse interview ahead of the sentencing that he had repeatedly tried to confess to the killing 17 years after it happened after his conscience caught up with him following a lifetime of petty crimes and drug use.
“In 1998, I was an 18-year-old kid and I’m not the same person I was 21 years ago,” O’Neill said. “I hope by turning myself in and confessing you will get the justice you deserve.”
In handing down the life sentence, State District Judge Jessica Fehr described how O’Neill’s crimes had forever altered the local community. Fehr noted she was about the same age as Miranda Fenner when she got a phone call from her own mother about the murder.
“I remember thinking this doesn’t happen in Billings and Laurel. We don’t even lock our doors,” the judge said. “This series of events in the fall of 1998 robbed Yellowstone County of its innocence.”
Sherry Fenner said she had no forgiveness for O’Neill, an admitted methamphetamine addict who said he robbed The Movie Store where Miranda worked and then slashed her daughter’s throat so she wouldn’t be able to identify him.
The killing launched an investigation that spanned more than two decades and involved interviews with hundreds of witnesses and numerous potential suspects.
O’Neill was questioned early in the investigation. His step-father, David Saylor, said he told a Laurel Police detective that O’Neill had been at the video store minutes before Fenner’s death.
But O’Neill’s denied responsibility in the early days of the case and the focus remained on others. He wasn’t questioned again by investigators until a year after he began trying to own up to the crime.
When O’Neill first sought to claim responsibility, while staying on the psychiatric ward at a Spokane hospital in 2016, his confession was reported back to authorities in Yellowstone County. They rejected him as noncredible.
The details he offered at the time were already widely known, Detective Shane Bancroft said, and O’Neill was also claiming responsibility for a second murder that had not happened.
Bancroft said investigators remained focused elsewhere until O’Neill showed up at the county jail to say he had killed Fenner in March 2017. He then described aspects of the crime that weren’t publicly known, prosecutors said.
“I can’t say there was an ‘Aha!’ moment, but I can tell you the longer we sat there, the more it became plausible he was telling the truth,” Bancroft said.
Authorities still didn’t arrest O’Neill. They have since explained that they wanted more than just a confession, which alone is insufficient evidence of guilt under Montana law.
A DNA swab taken from O’Neill following that 2017 interview with authorities matched up with a rape and attempted murder he’d claimed to have committed in 1998. Investigators and prosecutors spent months more vetting his story and negotiating with his defense attorney.
O’Neill was charged with Fenner’s murder last month and pleaded guilty the same day.
The victim in the rape described her unsuccessful attempts to reason with O’Neill by telling him she was a single mother with cancer. What followed was a desperate attempt to fight him off as he sexually assaulted her and mercilessly stabbed her in the jaw, throat, hands and arms.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault
The attack left the woman permanently debilitated, with injuries to her hands and jaw that continue to limit her daily activities two decades later, she said.
Based on his confessions and DNA evidence, authorities say O’Neill also committed a second rape around the same time as the other crimes. No charges have been brought in that case and the victim died in 2013.