Crime scene

Investigators process the scene of a rape and attempted homicide near the intersection of 24th Street West and Broadwater Avenue on Sept. 5, 1998. The case remained cold until DNA evidence helped prosecutors charge a suspect more than two decades later.

Prosecutors have filed charges in a cold case from 1998 in which a woman pretended to be dead after being raped and having her throat slashed.

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office charged Zachary David O’Neill with attempted deliberate homicide and sexual intercourse without consent on Jan. 11.

O’Neill, born in February 1980, has yet to be arraigned on the charges, which carry a penalty of between 10 years and life imprisonment.

O’Neill is accused of attacking a woman who had just finished delivering newspapers on the morning of Sept. 5, 1998, raping her and then cutting her throat with a knife. The attack took place near the intersection of Broadwater Avenue and 24th Street West.  

The woman told police at the time she had finished helping her daughter and friends with a paper route and was planning to be picked up in the area by her boyfriend, according to charges. 

She said she heard footsteps behind her and was attacked by a man, prosecutors say. She said she got only a brief look at the man and that he forced her at knife-point between two buildings, where he raped her, the charges state. 

The woman said she tried to use her hands to block the knife from hitting her neck but suffered puncture and slash wounds to her neck, charges state.

“She said she decided to pretend she died, and she described making ‘death’ sounds and pretending to be dead,” the charges state.

Her attacker then ran away, the woman told police.

Police identified possible suspects and sent a dirty condom from the attack to the Montana Forensic Science Division for testing, but the case remained unsolved for years.

In March 2017, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office interviewed O’Neill in connection with a separate case and he confessed to the 1998 rape and attack, according to charging documents.

“During their interview, O’Neill told them he committed a rape and attempted homicide near Broadwater Avenue, back in 1998,” the charges state.

O’Neill told investigators what he did and said he used a condom that he believed he left behind, the charges state. He said he ran away after attacking the woman and that he had cut her throat and she had screamed, prosecutors allege.

“He said he believed she lived, because the paper did not report that she died,” the charges state. “He said he was trying to kill her to avoid going to prison.”

Sheriff’s detectives forwarded the information from their interview to the Billings Police Department, which took a cheek swab from O’Neill and sent it to the state crime lab where it allegedly yielded a match with the DNA from evidence taken at the scene of the 1998 crime.

O’Neill’s initial court appearance has not yet been scheduled for Yellowstone County District Court. County Attorney Scott Twito said O'Neill is being held in custody out of state.

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