BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — More than 17 years after he slashed the throat of a teenage clerk while robbing a Montana video rental store, Zachary O’Neill says guilt overcame him and he tried to tell authorities he was the culprit.
But it was another three years after he first confessed in a psychiatric hospital, and later to sheriff’s investigators, before the admitted drug addict and petty criminal appeared in state court for the 1998 murder of 18-year-old Miranda Fenner.
“I was wondering why they didn’t even follow up and investigate,” O’Neill said about his April 2016 confession at a psychiatric hospital in Spokane, Washington.
“They just told me I could go,” O’Neill told The Associated Press in a jailhouse interview. “I was like, ‘Alright, I tried and I’m done.'”
On Friday, O’Neill, 39, is expected to be sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty last month to murder and the attempted killing and rape of another victim during the same time period.
O’Neill’s assertion of a thwarted confession underscores a series of apparent missed opportunities for investigators over two decades.
Even after he walked into the Yellowstone County jail in 2017 and again claimed responsibility, he was not immediately arrested because authorities said they needed to check out his story. Detectives, who said they had little usable DNA evidence from the Fenner crime scene, took his DNA, released him and set out to confirm what he had told them.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito confirmed the hospital confession, but said O’Neill’s story did not seem credible and he also claimed to have killed at least one other person who was still alive.
“It’s easy to go back in hindsight and connect the dots. It’s much harder to do that in the moment and as the years go by. You can’t afford to get it wrong,” Twito said.
O’Neill told investigators in 2017 that he “didn’t care too much” at first about what he had done to Fenner. He said he was stealing to support his drug use and had smoked meth before renting several movies that night. After his mother learned one of the movies was pornographic she sent him back to return it. He said he decided to rob the store and then killed Fenner because he thought she might be able to identify him to police.
He was able to describe what Fenner was wearing and other details about the crime that were not released to the public, court records said.
After talking to authorities at the jail in 2017, O’Neill headed back to Spokane, where he was subsequently arrested for a burglary and being a felon in possession of a firearm. While he was being held for those crimes, Montana detectives had matched his DNA to two rape cases. He was returned to Montana in February 2019 to face charges.
Authorities said the case was complicated not only by a lack of DNA evidence in the Fenner case, but the fact that numerous other suspects falsely claimed responsibility or were implicated by others. O’Neill himself was interviewed by detectives early on but he pointed to others, said Twito and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.
O’Neill’s former stepfather, David Saylor, said in the days following the crime he told a detective O’Neill had been at the video store in Laurel just minutes before Fenner’s killing. “I said: ‘If he didn’t do it, he damn well knew who did,'” Saylor said.
Laurel Detective Joel Sauter said hundreds of people had been interviewed over the years but he had never heard of Saylor’s claim.
In 2013, David Saylor’s wife Beverly told authorities she suspected O’Neill was involved.
She told a detective that O’Neill had rented movies from the video store the night Fenner was killed. She said O’Neill was prone to violence and members of his family had suggested he was involved in several other violent crimes.
“It just seemed like there was more and more stuff that pointed at him,” she said. “I thought, somebody has to know this. It’s not right.”
Detective Shane Bancroft said at the time there was no evidence linking O’Neill to Fenner’s death, court documents show.
O’Neill wasn’t interviewed after the 2013 call from Saylor because investigators were focused on other suspects, Twito said.
Linder, the sheriff, defended his department’s handling of the case. Investigators chased down numerous false leads over the years and needed to ensure they had a solid case before pursuing charges against O’Neill, he said.
“The big question is did we drop the ball along the way. My opinion is absolutely not. We followed up on what we had,” Linder told AP. “I’ll back them up 100% on this investigation.”
Miranda Fenner’s mother, Sherry, has said she is not talking about the case.
O’Neill said his step-brother’s death in an April 2013 arson fire caused him to feel “shame and regret” and led to his attempts to confess, court documents show. Finally in March 2017, a friend drove O’Neill to the Yellowstone County jail.
He broke down crying when he told officers how he cut Fenner’s throat. He has also admitted to the rape and attempted murder of a newspaper carrier and a second rape, both in the months before Fenner’s murder.
The victim in the second rape died in 2013 and no charges have been brought.
David Saylor said as a boy his stepson would steal sodas from a convenience store and later cash from at least one business. Over the years, the offenses escalated as O’Neill got involved in drugs and he grew increasingly violent. He lost an eye several years ago after being hit in the head with a baseball bat during a fight and has lost most of his teeth from years of smoking methamphetamine.
“He’s just a bad person. You just look into his eye and he looked dead,” David Saylor said. “I’m so ashamed I had anything to do with (his) upbringing.”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana.