TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains disturbing details of sexual assault and abuse. Reader discretion is advised. If you or someone you know is struggling, seek help from sexual abuse crisis centres, help lines across Canada.
On Valentine’s Day 1995, bodybuilding champion Ray McNeil was shot to death by his wife Sally McNeil, and while the media at the time was quick to call her a “'brawny bride” and “pumped-up princess,” the Netflix documentary series Killer Sally allows Sally to tell this complex and incredibly dark story in her own words.
“It’s been instilled in me that I’m the violent one, and the world isn’t violent,” Sally says in the series. “But in my eyes, when I’m getting attacked, it’s my right to defend myself, I have a right to defend myself.”
As Daniel Goldstein, former district attorney and prosecutor in charge of prosecuting Sally states, there are two types of homicides, the “who done it” and the “what is it,” and this murder case falls into the “what is it” category.
Sally claims that on Feb. 14, 1995, her husband was choking her and in an act of self-defence, she shot him twice. The prosecution focused on a shotgun shell found in the bedroom, suggesting Sally had returned to the bedroom, where the ammo was, to reload the gun to shoot her husband a second time. Sally was found guilty of second-degree murder and served a 25-year prison sentence.
Where the question of “what is it” comes up is in her motivation for shooting her husband, with Sally, corroborated by her children John and Shantina, maintaining that Ray physically and sexually abused her during their marriage.
“When he would attack me he would just instantly choke me,” Sally says. “I should not have allowed it to get to that.”
“I should have left him the third day we were married. The day he punched me in the face, cracked my lip and then he apologized to me and he said ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again’ and I believed him.”
“It never got better, it got worse,” Sally’s daughter, Ray’s stepdaughter, Shantina adds.
'If guys don’t want to see women who are too muscular, look like men, it’s not going to sell'
Behind these domestic violence allegations is what’s referred to in Killer Sally as the “seedy side of bodybuilding.”
Sally and Ray met in the Marine Corps in California, both bodybuilders and both had dreams of eventually turning pro. Ray left the Marines Corps in 1991 with the hopes of elevating his bodybuilding career, while Sally took a job as a cook at the mess hall to make money.
“Ray felt as though he was the most important person in the family,” Sally says. “He was trying to get me to give up my dream so I could support him,...I could finance his budding career in bodybuilding.”
Sally revealed that Ray had significant “insecurities” when it came to his body, always feeling like he wasn’t big enough, and that’s when steroid use was introduced, for both him and Sally, while Sally highlights that he used far more than she did.
It’s been documented that men make significantly more money than women in bodybuilding. As Lenda Murray, eight-time Ms. Olympia winner notes, she received US$27,000 for her first win while men in Mr. Olympia took home US$150,000, in addition to the challenge of getting robust coverage of women’s events.
“A lot of the women…they didn’t bring the eyeballs to TV,” Hugh Malay, a former ESPN sportscaster says in Killer Sally. “If guys don’t want to see women who are too muscular, look like men, it’s not going to sell.”
As Sally worked to provide for her family, fuelling her husband’s hearty eating schedule and steroid use, she started doing wrestling video for a man called Bill Wick, where she would wrestle him in some sort of fictional storyline. Sally then went on to make videos on her own and had a type of "stage name" of “Killer Sally.”
“I began to say to myself, why should I let these men exploit me when I can exploit myself and make money off the videos?” Sally says.
Sally then transitioned to “private wrestling sessions” in the 1990s, where men would pay for private time with these brawny women, something women bodybuilders would often do for money.
As Lee Penman, a bodybuilding journalist explains in Killer Sally, these men were referred to as “schmoes,” who would “get off” on paying women to wrestle them.
“Other people use the word schmo, I don’t use that word,” Sally says. “I made a lot of money off of these men. I will never degrade them.”
'He was literally like the devil to me'
Under all these personal circumstances, the McNeil house started getting more tense, with Shantina describing her stepfather as “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”
Sally's son John recalls not only that Ray would abuse his mother, but would “spank” him and his sister, often while the other sibling watched.
“I remember how torturous it used to be for me as a kid to have to sit there and watch him abuse the crap out of my sister and to know that I was next,” John says. “I really hated him. He was literally like the devil to me.”
Sally also reveals in the docuseries that Ray raped her after other physical abuse and would say, “that means you forgive me.”
“I should have left but I was so broken, I was so broken I didn’t know I was broke,” Sally says.
But Killer Sally also documents Sally’s violent history, often linked to physical violence and threats against women Ray was believed to be to be cheating on her with throughout the years.
Most notably, in 1990, Sally was suspended from the National Physique Committee after attacking a woman allegedly having an affair with Ray.
The most painful part of 'Killer Sally'
The most gut wrenching moment in Killer Sally comes when we see footage of Sally speaking to her children, after they were all brought to the police station following the 1995 attack.
Sally tells John and Shantina that Ray “is in heaven now,” and breaks down crying, with her daughter instantly reaching over and hugging her mother.
Shantina then says, “he was a bad man though,” with John urging his mother to tell the police it was self-defence, just before the kids are taken away to children’s services.
To see these small children who, as they recall as adults, were in the home and heard their mother being choked by their stepfather and the two gunshots that killed him, frantically trying to come up with reasons why their mother shouldn’t go to jail is painful to hear.
One statement that’s repeated in Killer Sally is that Sally, didn’t look like a victim. Daniel Goldstein’s perspective is that this is actually a case where people thought women couldn’t be violent, adding that he didn’t see “a great deal of remorse” from her and Sally didn’t present as the “fearful battered woman she claimed to be.”
“It was ‘steroid Back guy, the big Black guy that attacked his wife,’ so ‘he deserved what he got,’” Ray’s friend DJ says in Killer Sally, stressing that, that wasn’t the case.
A core question of Killer Sally is, was Sally’s ultimate fate impacted by the fact that she didn’t look like the mold of a feminine woman? Did her physique and the way she made money make her incapable of being a victim?
This case came at the time of the “angry woman” narrative in prevalent the media at the time, including Tonya Harding and Lorena Bobbitt, which all played into Sally's story. But the suggestion that Sally couldn't be a "battered woman" because she was seen as a physically strong woman, seems incredibly flawed, and speaks to our issues of bias, dated gender norms.