Killer Sally, a three-part documentary series, premieres on Netflix on November 3.
WHAT IS KILLER SALLY?
Killer Sally tells the story of amateur bodybuilder Sally McNeil and her tumultuous marriage to pro bodybuilder Ray McNeil that ended on Valentine’s Day 1995, when Sally shot Ray. Ray died, and Sally was convicted of second-degree murder. After 25 years behind bars, Sally McNeil was released on parole. In interviews in Killer Sally, she continues to maintain that she was protecting herself from Ray’s physical abuse.
Killer Sally is directed by accomplished nonfiction filmmaker Nanette Burstein, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated boxing documentary, On the Ropes (1999), as well as the innovative classic, The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002). Killer Sally is no Pumping Iron. Instead, Killer Sally promises to be a jaundiced view of bodybuilding’s seedy side, but the mystery of what happened before the shotgun fired may captivate a new generation of true crime fans. Sally McNeil cooperated with the producers to tell her side of the story.
Check out the trailer:
What follows is more information on Sally and Ray McNeil, their marriage, and the murder case. There may be spoilers ahead.
WHO IS SALLY MCNEIL?
Sally McNeil was born in 1960 and grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. With her first husband, Anthony Lowden, she had three children, one of whom was given up for adoption. That four-year marriage was rocky, and they divorced in 1986. She was a marine sergeant, stationed at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. She was also a competitive bodybuilder and won the middleweight classes of the 1988 and 1989 Armed Forces Championships.
In 1990, McNeil’s poor military record led to a demotion, and she was not allowed to re-enlist. She did for-pay wrestling sessions with men, sometimes on video; and she eerily and prophetically billed herself as “Killer McNeil” in a video entitled Time to Die. Sally McNeil’s bodybuilding ambitions sputtered. She was fifth in the middleweight classes of the USA Championships in both 1992 and 1994, but other placings were less impressive, and it seemed unlikely she would qualify for professional bodybuilding contests.
WHO WAS RAY MCNEIL?
Jamaican-American Ray McNeil was born on December 17, 1964. He also joined the marines and rose to the rank of sergeant when stationed at Camp Pendleton. He was also a bodybuilder, a more gifted one than Sally. He won the overall 1990 Armed Forces Championships, and the very next year he won the California Championships and the North American Championships (over Paul Dillett), qualifying for the professional league. At the latter contest, he was listed at 5’11” and 222 lbs. at age 25.
In the IFBB Pro League, Ray McNeil was a little undersized, but his pleasing shape and consistent conditioning led to some high placings. He competed 10 times in 1993, and, though he was 15th in the Mr. Olympia, he was second, fourth, and fifth (twice) in lesser pro shows. The list of legends Ray McNeil beat at much less than their bests includes Ronnie Coleman, Kevin Levrone, Nasser El Sonbaty, and Lee Priest. But pro bodybuilding was destined to grow increasingly crowded with bigger and better physiques as the ’90s progressed. In 1994, out of the marines and staying off bodybuilding stages, McNeil began pursuing a career in stand-up comedy. But he mostly lived off the earnings of his wife. He was preparing to return to pro bodybuilding contests in 1995.
THE RAY AND SALLY MCNEIL MARRIAGE
In 1987, after a short courtship, fellow marine sergeants Ray McNeil and Sally Lowden married. She was 27 and he was 23. They lived together near Camp Pendleton with her two children from her first marriage. For a while, they were stationed at the base in Okinawa, Japan. They both were aspiring bodybuilders. She began competing first, but he quickly passed her, bursting on the scene with his North American win in 1991.
Ray allegedly cheated frequently on Sally, and Sally had a violent temper. She was arrested in 1990 for pulling a pistol on her first husband and shattering his car windows. Days later, after a fight with Ray, she dropped a weight on Ray’s car from a balcony. Also that year, she fought with police officers investigating the wellbeing of her children, and she was barred from NPC bodybuilding contests for a year after beating up a woman spectator she suspected of having sex with Ray. In 1993, Sally McNeil repeatedly kicked a bouncer who ordered her to stop dancing on a table and was arrested for assaulting the police officers called to the bar.
Sally McNeil’s violent temper before 1995 was publicly chronicled. Privately, was Ray McNeil violent towards her? That’s what she alleged then and alleges now. In 2009, she claimed that the first beating was on the third day of their marriage, and the abuse continued sporadically until the end, resulting in broken bones and a partially torn rotator cuff. “I reported the injury but didn’t tell the doctors what really happened so they didn’t do an x-ray,” she said. “I was afraid of getting Ray into trouble. I was afraid of losing Ray. Looking back, I realize I was a classic case of battered wife syndrome. I was in denial that Ray was abusive to me. My self esteem was so low. I didn’t think I could attract another man like Ray.”
THE KILLING OF RAY MCNEIL
On February 14, 1995, at around 10:00 P.M., Ray McNeil finished his workout at the gym. Depleted from months of dieting, he was set to compete in a pro bodybuilding contest in Miami just four days later. He returned to the Oceanside, California, apartment he shared with Sally and her two children from her first marriage. It was Valentine’s Day.
They argued. Then, while Ray was in the kitchen cooking chicken, Sally went to the bedroom and loaded a shotgun. She returned to the kitchen and shot Ray in the abdomen. She reloaded the gun (it was later disputed if this happened in the bedroom or kitchen) and fired a second shot into Ray’s face.
Sally’s daughter and son ran from the apartment screaming, alarming neighbors. After dialing 911, Sally covered Ray with a blanket. He was bleeding profusely and mumbling. Outside, Sally gave the shotgun to a neighbor and said Ray had been beating her. She waited for the police to arrive.
The police arrived at around 10:40 PM. Ray McNeil was rushed to a hospital where he died while undergoing surgery. He was 30. Sally McNeil was arrested and booked for murder in the San Diego County Jail.
THE TRIAL OF SALLY MCNEIL
Ray McNeil, in the final week before a pro bodybuilding contest, tested positive for five types of steroids. Sally McNeil tested positive for one (Deca-Durabolin). When the mainstream media latched onto the “bodybuilder murder story,” their main plotline was “roid rage.”
The trial of Sally McNeil began exactly one year after the event, on Valentine’s Day 1996. The prosecution argued that Sally killed Ray because he was about to leave her and for life insurance money. The defense argued that when Ray came home that night he hit and choked Sally, and she shot him in self-defense.
Her defense attorney said: “The issue in this case is Sally McNeil’s right to use force in an honest and reasonable manner against her abuser in order to stop the beatings, the rapes, the sodomies, the tortures.”
The prosecutor said: “The defendant is anything but a battered wife. She is one of the most violent persons I have ever prosecuted.”
Much of the trial was about the lack of physical evidence that Sally was assaulted and also where the shotgun was loaded (indicating premeditation). Sally McNeil took the stand. She eventually testified that she berated Ray that night that he wasn’t lean enough to place in the upcoming pro show and she was tired of his extramarital affairs. She admitted he was going to leave her. She stuck to her tale of his violence towards her.
On March 19, 1996, Sally McNeil was convicted of second degree murder. A month later, she was sentenced to 19 years-to-life in prison. The judge told her: “You’ll be an old woman when you get out. Ray didn’t deserve to die like that.”
Sally McNeil was transported from the San Diego County Jail to the Central California Women’s Facility on May 1, 1996, where she was imprisoned for the next 24 years. Her attorneys appealed the verdict on a variety of grounds. Her conviction was overturned in 2003 because of improper jury instructions, but she remained imprisoned while that decision was appealed; and, after an opinion by the United States Supreme Court, her conviction was reinstated in 2005. On May 29, 2020, Sally McNeil, who turned 60 that year, was granted parole.