Into the Unknown: Miranda Fenner

I wouldn't normally publish a post that was solved before publication. However, I already had this post written when I read the news of the solution to the case, and because I live near the city Miranda lived in when she died, I decided to go ahead with the post. Any outdated information is only outdated because of the resolution, but Miranda still deserves to be known, and remembered. Please read through the post and find the solution at the bottom.

Miranda Fenner was a young woman with her whole life in front of her. All she was trying to do was put in a shift at work, and everything was taken from her in a heartbeat. No one witnessed the crime, and no one has any answers for her family. To this day, her brutal murder haunts a Montana city, and the family who can't let her go.

I am very familiar with the cities we're about to talk about. I spend time in both of them often. Still, I had never heard about the murder of Miranda Fenner until I stumbled across a video created by Cayleigh Elise, one of my favorite content creators. She no longer makes videos due to some personal issues she's been dealing with, but the video is fantastic, and anyone interested in content similar to this series should check out her channel.

Some of the content in this post may disturb or upset sensitive readers. 

I do not post graphic pictures, but websites found by following links in this post might. Reader discretion is advised.

THE HISTORY: Laurel and Billings, Montana are situated in the southwestern corner of the state, separated by less than twenty miles on US 310. The population growth in this area of Montana is higher than the rest of the country, due to the recent oil boom in neighboring North Dakota and other areas of the west.

Driving the 310 across the Montana border from Wyoming, Laurel is the first city you'll come to after passing through smaller communities like Bridger and Fromberg. With a population of just shy of 7,000 people, it seems larger than it is, with several fast food and retail chains claiming space throughout town, as well a Cenex oil refinery right next to the highway, and the Laurel Yard of the Montana Rail Link.

Laurel is the third largest community in the Billings Metropolitan Area, the fastest growing area in the state. The BMA boasts a population of over 170,000, and plays host to millions of visitors throughout the year. From Laurel and the BMA, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Gallatin, Shoshone, and Kootenai National Forests, and many other wonders of the West are within easy reach, either by the network of highways through the area, or via Billings Logan International Airport.

Thousands of people travel by and through Laurel every day via the 310, which is busy almost any time of day you make your way along it.

THE VICTIM: Miranda Fenner was born the day after Christmas in 1978 to Sherry and Mike Fenner. She and younger brother Tim were raised in Sacramento, California until 1990, when her parents decided to move to Laurel, Montana. This decision was made to get the family away from such a large city and to move closer to family.

Miranda was tall, with dark hair and eyes and deep dimples in her cheeks. Her friends and family remember her for her big heart and caring soul. She was an animal lover, and dreamed of someday working with children. Always one to root for the underdog, her mother had reservations about some of her friends, but knew that Miranda meant well, always wanting to lift up those around her. She was also never afraid to speak her mind, and one of her teachers described her as "feisty."

Months before her death, Miranda was in a car accident where she suffered a broken neck. Forced to wear a neck brace and unable to leave the house during the summer, she was thrilled to take a job once she was healed, and accepted one at Laurel's now-closed The Movie Store, a locally-owned video rental store. Her parents felt safe letting her work there, as her grandparents owned and operated the Lohof Motel across the street. The Movie Store was only three blocks from her own home, and there was no reason to worry about her safety, even though she often closed the store by herself. This is a common situation for young people working in retail, and most days, the worst that happens is a customer wandering in at closing time.

On the night of November 15, 1998, though, Miranda's shift became anything but normal. Miranda called her mother from the store, then her uncle, and both conversations seemed normal. Sometime after 8:00, though, the night took a dark turn.

At 8:20 p.m., two fishermen returning from a fishing trip saw Miranda in front of the door to The Movie Store, bleeding and obviously injured, and they stopped to help. They called 911, and minutes later police arrived. Miranda's brother, Tim, rode to the store on his bike to rent a video game, but stopped when he saw the police lights flashing and called their father, Mike, who immediately came to the store as well. As soon as he arrived on-scene, he was told by officers that Miranda was being flown via Life Flight helicopter to St. Vincent's Hospital in Billings, just over 15 miles away. Sherry found out from her mother that something has happened to Miranda and left work immediately. She and Mike beat the Life Flight helicopter to St. Vincent's, and waited there with no word of her condition while doctors worked frantically to save Miranda's life.

Miranda passed away while in surgery to repair her wounds. It was only then that Sherry and Mike learned that their daughter had been murdered.

THE INVESTIGATION: The crime scene was gruesome, but whoever killed Miranda Fenner left little in the way of evidence behind. Miranda was stabbed multiple times in the head, and her throat was slashed.

No weapon was left behind. Fibers and hairs left at the scene, potentially by her assailant(s) provided no leads.

Police quickly determined that money was stolen from the store's cash register, but there wasn't much to be had, and they concluded robbery was not the main motive.

THE SUSPECTS: As of late 2018, there are no publicly named suspects in Miranda Fenner's murder. Over the years, there have been several people linked to the crime, and over 800 have been interviewed, but here we are 21 years later and there are still no answers. Thad Muller, The Movie Store's owner, his wife and sister-in law, a patron who was in the store shortly before the murder, were all quickly ruled out as suspects.

If there are any other suspects the police have in mind, they have been tight-lipped about them throughout the investigation as a whole. Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder has said progress is being made in the case, but the department will not talk about it so the case won't be compromised.

Without more information from investigators, there isn't much that's publicly available to go on for people like me. There are two theories that websleuths have offered up, at least for public consumption. One of those is that Miranda was killed by a drifter or traveller, someone who came into and went out of town quickly. Laurel bears the burden of heavy tourist traffic in the summer, but even in the winter it is situated on a common commute route, so this theory is possible. But, her parents believe the second theory more strongly, and that is that someone local killed Miranda. They believe Miranda knew the person or people who killed her, and that someone in Laurel knows what happened that November evening.

THE AFTERMATH: Much has changed in Laurel since late 1998. The Lohof Motel is no longer open, and neither is The Movie Store, both closed in the years since Miranda Fenner was murdered. Cities move on, but Miranda's parents have never given up that their daughter's killer or killers will be caught. In 2012, Miranda's case was handed off to Billings Metro Police's cold case division, who handles it to this day.

Walking through Laurel today, it's not hard to find posters in shop windows with photos of Miranda, pleading residents and tourists alike for information about Miranda's killer(s). Once you get off the main drags and onto the streets where places like The Movie Store once were, it's easy to forget how busy the center of town is. Laurel gets quiet, you see people mowing their lawns and walking with their kids just like in any other small town. You don't see bars on windows, and it's easy to imagine the town as a safe place to live.

THE CONCLUSION: My eldest son spend four days in St. Vincent's in Billings in 2015. He went into the hospital through the same emergency room doors Miranda Fenner would have in 1998, as far as I know. I remember that hospital like I just left it, and I'm sure Sherry and Mike Fenner remember it, too. This case touched me personally because I visit Laurel multiple times a year. My memory of the hospital, and the worry that my son wouldn't walk out of St. Vincent's with me, still takes my breath away some days. What I feel can't compare with what the Fenners have been through, but my experience makes me feel for them more than most of the families I've written about for this series of blog posts.

I never would have imagined such a horrific crime happening in a town like Laurel, despite the number of people who pass through its limits every day. Every time I drive the 310, I look over the town, and now I wonder about Miranda and her family. I think of her often, especially when I drive through the residential streets. 

SOLVED: In July 2019, Zachary David O'Neill pled guilty to the murder of Miranda Fenner. He was questioned in early 2017 in connection with a nearly lethal attack on a newspaper carrier in 1998. During that interrogation, he confessed to that crime, Miranda Fenner's murder, and a third case as well. He was first questioned about Fenner in 2000, but denied involvement. O'Neill lived in Laurel at the time all these crimes, as well as several others he was allegedly involved in, occurred. He said the night Miranda was murdered, he rented several movies from The Movie Store, and Miranda rang him up. One of the movies was pornographic, and when his mother, who he lived with at the time, saw it, she made him take it back. When he returned to the store, he planned to rob it, and waited until all other customers had left. Instead of simply robbing the store, he attempted the robbery he had planned and at some point, attacked Miranda so she couldn't identify him as the robber.


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