News

Actions

'24 years later and it's still raw': Billings woman reflects on 1998 cold case, shares healing journey

Posted at 8:35 PM, Nov 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-07 13:47:04-05

**This story contains sensitive material including accounts of sexual assault that may be upsetting for some viewers and readers**

BILLINGS - When Julia Lillethun describes herself, she talks about her children, her grandchildren, and her career passion of administering the Yellowstone County Spelling Bee.

But to inmates of the Billings Alpha House, Lillethun, 57, describes herself a different way—as a survivor of a serial rapist and murderer.

For about a year, Lillethun has been presenting with the Montana Department of Corrections Victim Impact Panels, a program designed to build empathy and reduce recidivism among felony offenders. The 13-week course includes meeting face-to-face with people like Lillethun, who have been personally impacted by violent crime.

And what happened to Lillethun on September 5, 1998—was part of a crime wave that shocked the Yellowstone Valley and brought national attention to Montana.

"He came up behind me and I felt like I had been hit by a freight train," Lillethun remembers.

Lillethun had been working an early morning paper route when she was attacked from behind by an unknown man, dragged into a nearby alleyway, raped at knife point, and stabbed several times in the face, throat, and hands.

"I knew that I couldn't keep fighting him off. I was worn out and tired and exhausted and terror. The terror and the fear and it paralyzes you," Lillethun said.

After the stabbing, Lillethun played dead and as nearby morning traffic picked up, her attacker ran away, leaving her bleeding and scrambling to find help.

Passing motorists called 9-1-1 and stopped to render aid to Lillethun—who was hospitalized for her injuries.

But Lillethun's attacker wasn't done.

Seven days later, he raped another woman in Billings.

On Nov.r 15, 18-year-old Miranda Fenner was murdered in a Laurel video store where she worked as a clerk.

“I felt there was a connection there. And I did ask the detectives and they said, 'no, it was two totally different MOs' and they weren't even related at all," Lillethun said.

For two decades, there were no arrests - until 42-year-old Zachary O'Neill came forward and confessed to it all.

"I got the phone call that it was solved. They did not let me know that they were linked, that they were in fact done by the same person, I didn't know for a while," Lillethun said.

For Lillethun, the crime that caused so much pain, grief and trauma, all present in her everyday life, was once again in the public eye.

She faced O'Neill at his sentencing alongside Fenner's family, where he ultimately received three life sentences in the Montana State Prison, though he is eligible for parole after serving 10 years of each sentence.

But the connection between the Billings grandmother and the crime was not public. In court documents she was anonymous, known only by her initials.

"It's hard to come forward when the court of public opinion is very brutal and it's a very hard thing to get through and it just adds to the trauma," Lillethun said. "I want others to know that there are resources out there for them, that they don't have to fight this alone and that there are programs where they can join and speak with other victims so that their voice can be heard too."

That wasn't a story she was ready to claim publicly until recently with the help of victim services groups.

“I received a notification from Vine that they had transported the perpetrator to Great Falls. And then I got another notification a few months later that they were transporting him back to the Montana State Prison. And I guess I watched too many crime shows, . And I called him and I'm like, 'What do you mean you're transporting him? What if he gets away?' And there just happened to be an angel that answered the phone that morning, Allison. And we talked and she asked me if I had heard of the VIP program and I said, No, I hadn't. And she explained it to me and set me up with the conference that was coming up, their workshops. And I hit the ground running.”

Over the last year, Lillethun has entered a new era of empowerment ushered on by her work with inmates in correctional institutions across the state.

“I went into it thinking that I was helping others, but they have helped me. They truly have a lot of the inmates, they're just amazing. And they have shown me how to look at things from a different viewpoint because I'm looking at it from a victim and from the anger and the trauma. And I've seen that we're all redeemable and I've learned so much from other victims and from the people that run the program. And it's helped me so much. And I've come so far in the year that I've been doing this, so I'm so grateful and thankful," Lillethun said.

And it's the inmates she's working with that are even helping Lillethun navigate the murky and tumultuous waters of forgiveness.

A moment in particular she recalls is when she received a letter from O'Neill after his sentencing.

"He expressed regret and I felt he was sincere until I got to a few pages. He wrote that I was right, that forgiveness was for me and not for him. And that he just wished that [Fenner's] mother would come to that realization..."

"And I coming from a place of pain and being his victim, it made me mad. It was like, you know, you took her daughter's life, this precious soul away from this earth. You don't get to say how her mom heals and how she feels."

"I just did the Helena pre-release. And one of the inmates, I had shared that with him and at the question session he raised his hand and he said, I'm not trying to make excuses for what he did, but cuz it's not right. But maybe he meant that he hopes that she comes to that realization for her healing, not for his benefit but for her healing. And I thought, how profound, because I'm tunnel vision, from your heart, you're still hurting 24 years later. It's still raw."

As Lillethun prepares for her next presentation at the Montana State Prison where O'Neill is currently housed, she hopes to bring other people out of the shadows and down the path of healing.

Along with the VIP program, Lillethun is an advocate with Jane Doe No More, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for and empowering survivors of sexual abuse.

“There are days when you feel like you just can't go on but you just push through, you can do it, you can get to the other side.”

Some important resources Lillethun wants to share:

Victim Impact Panels – Montana Department of Corrections, Victim Services Program –CORVictimLiaison@mt.gov, Victim Services Helpline (406) 444-0447 or (888) 223-6332

Victim Support Network MT Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/groups/1171770960261684

Victim Support Network Database – Francis Meagher, Founding Member: (406) 560-3619, francismeagher@yahoo.com

Jane Doe No More / John Doe No More, www.janedoenomore.org

Jane Doe No More Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/janedoenomore

JDNM Survivors Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/128392780835772

Jane Doe No More MT – Barb Jenkins – barb@janedoenomore.org, (406) 240-9648

RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline - https://hotline.rainn.org/online