On November 15, 1998, 18-year-old Miranda Fenner was stabbed to death while working at a video store in Laurel, Montana. The case received widespread media attention and to this day, remains one of the highest-profile crimes in Yellowstone County history.
Miranda's murder remained unsolved for nearly 20 years. Her killer confessed to her murder in March of 2017, but it wasn't publicized until he officially pled guilty to the murder in July of 2019.
MURDER AND INVESTIGATION
Miranda was 18 years old at the time of her murder. She had a job working at The Movie Store, a video rental store in her hometown of Laurel, Montana. On the night of November 15, 1998, a passing driver witnessed something horrifying: he saw a young woman, bloodied, trying to crawl out of the video store. The driver stopped to call 911.
The woman was Miranda, who had been stabbed multiple times in her head and neck. Her throat had been slashed, as well. Despite being rushed via Life Flight to St. Vincent Healthcare hospital nearby, she died within 2 hours of her injuries.
In the wake of her death, over 700 people were interviewed. However, no suspects were found. There was no clear motive in the case, either, making it difficult to narrow down a suspect pool. Police originally believed that the motive may have been robbery, given that a small amount of cash had been taken from the store's register. Robbery, thus, couldn't be ruled out, but investigators didn't think it was likely given the brutality of the crime.
3 years after the murder, in 2001, Miranda's parents continued to hold out hope that their daughter's killer would eventually be found. They worked to keep her name in the public eye as much as possible. "If this is what I have to do to keep picking at that person, until they screw up, until they say something to the wrong person..." Sherry Fenner said. "You can't let them forget," her husband, Mike, added.
The Fenners handed out flyers, purchasing advertisements and billboards to keep her face in the town's memory, and even offering a $25,000 reward for any information that lead to the arrest of Miranda's killer.
"I'm sure somebody out there knows something and just isn't saying," Miranda's friend and classmate Erin Zindler said. "It's kind of creepy to know that person is still out there. They got away with it once, what's to say they won't do it again?"
Though Erin and other close to Miranda believed that it was unlikely that a complete stranger just passing through who killed her, the Fenners believed that the killer was no longer in Laurel. Mike Fenner believed that the killer was from the area, but that after he killed Miranda that it would be impossible to stay quiet and hidden in the small town.
Investigators believed that, because there was no evidence left in the case, that someone would have to walk in and confess. "At this late date, that's probably not going to happen," Laurel Police Chief Rick Musson said.
NEARLY 20 YEARS LATER
Little did he know, that would be the exact way the killer was eventually caught. In July of 2019, it was reported that someone had confessed to the 18-year-old's murder back in 1998.
In March of 2017, Zachary David O'Neill walked into the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and asked to confess to a crime. He wanted to confess to murdering Miranda Fenner. Deputies weren't immediately convinced. They said it seemed like he was "coming down off meth" when he arrived. And, beyond that, between 5-7 people had confessed to the crime in the years prior, none of which led to anything.
But in a second interview with investigators later on, O'Neill again confessed to the murder.
O'Neill was 18 years old on November 15, 1998. He was living with his mother in Laurel at the time. That night, he went to The Movie Store at his mother's request. He rented 4-5 movies, one of them being a porn movie. He rented the films from Miranda without issue, and went home.
When his mother learned that he had rented a porn movie, she got angry and told him that he had to return it. So he went back and "thought he knew he was going to rob it," according to court documents. However, he waited until the other customers left. And then, he killed her.
He corroborated the early theory that robbery was at least part of the motive when he claimed that he decided to kill her to avoid getting caught for the robbery. However, he had brought a knife with him, so he had never truly counted out the possibility of murder. He dumped the knife later while on a hunting trip with his father.
He included a variety of details about the crime and crime scene that were not known to the public, and consistently knew more than what was shared in the papers. When he was DNA swabbed, he was also found to be involved in the raping and attempted murder of a newspaper carrier the same year as Miranda's murder.
The newspaper carrier had just finished helping her daughter and friends with a paper route and was planning to be picked up by her boyfriend when she heard footsteps behind her. She was raped at knifepoint and left for dead. She didn't get a good enough look at him to make any sort of identification.
(In 2013, a former resident of Laurel told detectives that she believed O'Neill may have been involved in the murder. This person had recently moved back to Montana, which brought back memories of the murder. While investigators were able to confirm that he lived in the area at the time, there was no other evidence that linked him to the crime.)
He certainly wasn't unfamiliar with law enforcement. He had been charged and imprisoned for burglary and unlawful firearm possession, criminal mischief, misdemeanor assault, another burglary, and theft between 1997 and 2015.
In his 2006 assault case, he had punched a woman in the eye after exiting her car for no reason at all. She had been reaching for something in her car when she spotted him staring at her. When she asked him to leave, he punched her. He was reportedly on drugs during the time.
Originally, O'Neill said he didn't care much about what he had done, but later said he felt shame and regret for his actions, and had attempted to turn himself in a couple of times before, but he stopped himself. A friend of O'Neill's, identified only by initials in court documents, told investigators that he drove O'Neill to the facility to confess after learning about the murder 2 months earlier. O'Neill's stepbrother had been killed in April of 2013, and started to feel prompted to confess after seeing a conviction in relation to the case. His friend told him that the Fenner family also deserved to feel that type of justice.
Thankfully, even though so much time had passed since Miranda's death, her parents were alive to see her killer get justice. They expressed relief for the closure of the "nightmare that has caused so much heartache and pain to everyone who knew and loved Miranda." They thanked everyone involved who had shared posters, helped search for the killer, and provided love and support. They requested privacy going forward.
This case is, first and foremost, heartbreaking. I can imagine just about nothing worse than getting a call that your daughter who was working a shift at her part-time job had been stabbed to death. How do you even continue on? Her parents had the immense strength to hold out hope through the ~20 years it took for her case to be solved. But until that happened, they had to live with the fact that not only had their daughter been brutally murdered, the person who did it could have still been walking around freely, passing them at the grocery store or on the street.
But the case is also, in some ways, a beacon of hope for other cold cases. It was only 3 years since the crime was committed that the police realized they had no evidence to make an arrest, and a confession was needed. That happens in a lot of cases. And yes, it took until 19 years later for someone to confess, and 21 years for someone to officially be sentenced for the crime, but it does support feeling hope. Because someone knows what happened in every single mysterious death or unsolved murder. So many times, it is just a matter of them coming forward. And they won't, most of the time. But sometimes, they might. And that is worth holding out some hope, even 20 years later.