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Fenner cold case

Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department detectives Shane Bancroft, left, and Frank Fritz stand with a photo of Miranda Fenner at a press conference announcing the resolution of the 1998 homicide case Tuesday.

The murder of Miranda Fenner shocked Yellowstone County in November 1998. Fenner, who had graduated from Laurel High School that spring, was found on a Sunday night on the doorstep of the Laurel video store where she was working alone. The teen's throat had been slit and she had suffered other stab wounds. Emergency responders rushed her to St. Vincent Healthcare by helicopter, but she died shortly after arrival.

Investigators found few clues about the killer, except that the Movie Store had been robbed, that it happened between 7:40 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. and that the murderer was probably covered in blood.

That harrowing story from the Nov. 17, 1998, Billings Gazette would be followed up by nearly 100 more Gazette news reports on the unsolved murder of a beautiful, hard working young woman who had no known enemies.

This week, the story changed dramatically. After 20 years of investigation, Yellowstone County authorities announced that the murder case has been solved. A man who was charged in February with attacking, raping and slitting the throat of a Billings newspaper carrier on Sept. 5, 1998, (the victim survived) was charged Tuesday with killing Fenner. He was 18 years old and living in Laurel at the time of the murder.

According to court documents filed Tuesday, Zachary David O'Neill confessed that he rented movies at the video store the night of the murder, then went back to return a pornographic movie (because is mother told him to return it) and "knew" he was going to rob the store. After demanding the cash register money from Fenner, O'Neill confessed, he decided he did not want a witness, so he slit her throat with a knife he brought to the store. Then he fled, leaving Fenner bleeding and dying.

The depravity of this senseless, vicious crime committed in our community is chilling. An innocent young woman's life was taken suddenly and horrible. The crime remains an outrageous affront to the peace and safety of the public.

Mother's campaign

It must be hoped that bringing O'Neill to justice provides some measure of closure to her family. Miranda Fenner's mother, Sherry Fenner, and other community members kept the case in the public eye all these years — with billboards, posters, a full-page newspaper ad and offered a $25,000 reward for information about the killer. The crime was featured on national unsolved cases programs.

Ultimately, the murder case was solved with painstaking, dogged detective work. Numerous law officers from Laurel and Yellowstone County worked to identify the killer. Sheriff's Detectives Shane Bancroft and Frank Fritz have been lead investigators on this murder case since 2012 and have worked on it for 11 years in total.

Multiple confessions

At a press conference Tuesday, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and Sheriff Mike Linder said O'Neill had been interviewed in 2002, but denied involvement in the murder and there was no evidence tying him to it.

It wasn't till after O'Neill confessed to deputies that they were able to build the case against him. Oddly, O'Neill wasn't the first person to claim to be the killer. At least five people have confessed over the years, Bancroft said Tuesday. Investigators had to corroborate details of O'Neill's confession before he could be charged. He voluntarily provided a saliva sample that eventually showed his DNA matches that of the rapist in the September 1998 attack. 

He has been jailed in Billings since February when he was transferred from a Washington state prison where he was sentenced on burglary and firearms offenses.

O'Neill has pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide in the Fenner killing and guilty to attempted deliberate homicide in the September 1998 case. He is expected to serve to life sentences for each crime. 

2nd case solved

This is the second time in four months that Yellowstone County law enforcement officers have solved a cold case murder. In March, Linder announced that extensive DNA research had identified the man who killed Clifford and Linda Bernhardt, both 24 years old, in their Heights home on Nov. 7, 1973. Linda Bernhardt was sexually assaulted. The finding brought closure for the couple's relatives, although the killer had died years ago.

These resolved cold cases testify to the value of perseverance. Detectives never gave up. The result is that the murder victims' families and the community finally got answers. We hope the homicide case filed this week gives the Fenner family some relief from their 20-year nightmare.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.