Man Pleads Guilty To Cold Case Murder After Confessing To Hearing Victim 'Gurgling On Her Own Blood'

Zachary David O'Neill was in court for separate rape and attempted murder charges from 1998 in Montana.

By Erik Hawkins
Zachary David O'Neill

Two decades after the fact, a Montana man pleaded guilty on Tuesday to the vicious slashing murder of 18-year-old Miranda Fenner at a video store in 1998.

Zachary David O’Neill, 39, was in court for another brutal cold case from the same year, in which he was accused of raping a newspaper delivery woman, then cutting her throat, according to The Billings Gazette.

O’Neill pleaded guilty to the rape and attempted murder charges, then was immediately arraigned for Fenner’s murder. O’Neill confessed to killing Fenner back in 2017, but, according to the Gazette, investigators needed time to corroborate the details, because a number of other people had submitted false confessions over the years.

O’Neill was a methamphetamine addict at the time, stealing to support his habit, and he was high when he killed Fenner, the Associated Press reported.

Fenner’s mother spent many of the last 20 years pleading for the public’s help in bringing Miranda’s killer to justice, including offering a $25,000 reward, the Gazette reported.

On the night of Nov. 15, 1998, police officers were dispatched to the video store in Laurel, Montana, where they found Miranda Fenner covered in blood — officers initially thought that she had been shot in the neck, according to court documents.

Fenner had crawled from the back of the store to the front door, according to court documents. She survived for about 90 minutes more, before succumbing to the slash wounds in her neck at the hospital.

Police were first tipped off to O’Neill’s potential involvement in 2012, when a woman — who was not identified in the charging documents — said that she recalled her previous husband’s son being a “very violent person” when she lived with him, and that on the night of Fenner's murder, that son had gone out to rent a movie.

O’Neill himself approached sheriff’s deputies in 2017 to confess to the murder, according to the charging documents. He told them that he rented some videotapes — including a porn film — on Nov. 15, 1998, then the same night returned one and killed Fenner, who was working alone in the store.

During a later interview with detectives, O’Neill said that his mother, with whom he lived, discovered the porn film he rented and told him to return it. Then, he decided to rob the store, according to court documents — and then that he could not leave a witness behind.

O’Neill broke down in tears during his 2017 interview when he described to detectives how his knife was too jagged to cleanly slit Fenner's throat, and how he could hear her “gurgling on her own blood,” according to the court documents.

Detectives wrote in the charging document that O’Neill said he was overcome with shame and suicidal thoughts — and that he had raped “a couple more girls” since — and that was why he was confessing so many years later.

But O’Neill wasn’t finished confessing: He also told detectives about raping a woman earlier in 1998, and cutting her throat to hopefully silence her, according to the court documents.

The woman survived, but played dead after O’Neill slashed her on Sept. 5, 1998, according to a prior Billings Gazette report.

The detectives who interviewed O’Neill in 2017 shared what they had learned with local police, and then O’Neill’s DNA with the state crime lab, and everything checked out, the Gazette reported.

The Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department became vexed over the years with the attention the case drew, without viable suspects, Sheriff Mike Linder told the Associated Press. A number of people falsely confessed over the years, but O’Neill’s stunning 2017 confession was the department’s first solid lead.

O’Neill has a sentencing hearing scheduled for Aug. 23, according to the Associated Press.

Miranda Fenner’s family released a statement that was provided to the outlet.

“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 read, according to AP. “Nothing will bring Miranda back, and we can only pray that other families may be spared the grief that this type of crime inflicts.”

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