LAUREL – The conclusion to a 20-year-old cold case has residents in Laurel — where the gruesome murder took place — letting out a breath of relief.
Zachary O’Neil, 39, pleaded guilty Tuesday to the 1998 murder of Miranda Fenner.
In Laurel, where she graduated high school, residents who remember the case were glad the case has been solved.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a sense of closure I would say,” said Matthew Smarsh.
Smarsh’s family business, Dynamic Designs, has been in Laurel since 1993, so his family remembers the case.
Although Smarsh was only about eight years old at the time, he said the case infiltrated the community everywhere he looked.
“The poster has been in every shop here in local Laurel for as long as I can remember,” he said.
A reward poster for Fenner is also hanging in his family’s shop on First Avenue in the center of town.
“The fact (is) that it’s an everyday memory,” said Smarsh.
Earlier this year, O’Neil was charged with the 1998 rape and attempted homicide of a newspaper carrier on Billings West End that happened a couple of months before Fenner was killed.
Authorities say he first came on their radar back in 2000.
Charging documents show his stepmother tipped off investigators in 2013 that he might be a suspect. He walked into the detention center in Billings and confessed to killing Fenner in 2017.
He then confessed again a couple of months later while being held on burglary charges in Washington.
As the investigation comes to close, many in Laurel have expressed closure too.
The town grieved with the Fenner family, and, for years, wondered if a suspect would ever be held to justice, something Laurel Police Chief Stan Langve spoke about at a Tuesday press conference.
“Being a Laurel boy and growing up there, this occurred a little over a year before I got hired with Laurel police,” said Langve. “It’s been a dark cloud which you’re always fighting against.”
At the corner of Main Street and Fifth Avenue, where Fenner lost her life while working at a video store, the salon that currently is housed in the building was abuzz.
Smarsh believes the chatter over the case likely won’t end anytime soon, as people in town take time to comprehend.
“It will probably talk about a lot longer than most things are talked about these days,” said Smarsh. “It’s just more shock when something like that actually gets closed.”
According to charging documents, O’Neil said the motive in the Fenner case was robbery for drug money and that he decided to kill the woman because he did not want any witnesses.