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A bodybuilder said her husband abused her. Then she was charged with his murder

sally McNeil has never denied that she shot her husband Ray. “I just shot my husband because he just beat me up,” she told the 911 operator on the night of Valentine’s Day 1995. Then at the police station she told the two officers who were questioning her, “I wanted to get out of the house. , and he wouldn’t let me out of the house, so I ran back to the bedroom and grabbed my gun.” When the police informed her during their interrogation that Ray had died of his injuries, Sally collapsed on the table in front of her.

“I didn’t want it to be that way,” she said between sobs. “I just wanted him to stop hitting me.”

Sally was charged with second-degree murder in the hours after Ray’s death. Her lawsuit, her defense and the years of abuse she claims she suffered at the hands of her husband – who, like her, was a famous bodybuilder – are all covered in the new documentary. Killer Sallyby Oscar-nominated director Nanette Burstein.

Burstein, whose previous documentary subjects have included Hillary Clinton and Tonya Harding, was first approached by two producers about a possible project to revisit Sally’s case. “They had read about the story during the settling of the #MeToo era and thought it was important to revisit these kinds of gossip stories, which probably have a lot more depth to them,” Burstein said. UKTN during a video call earlier this month.

The producers wrote Sally a letter. She was “very interested in telling her story and setting the record straight,” Burstein says. The more Burstein herself heard about Sally’s story, the more passionate she became about telling it.

“Domestic violence is a huge problem worldwide,” she says, “and the way our society is dealing with it, including the United States, really needs to be dealt with.” Burstein cites data echoing a 2021 World Health Organization report, according to which one in three women, i.e. about 736 million of them worldwide, are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.

(Netflix © 2022)

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1960, Sally McNeil had what she describes in the documentary as a “tough” upbringing, full of “situations where [she] had to defend [herself].” She says she was exposed to physical violence so often in her childhood and early adulthood that it eventually seemed like a norm to her—something she thought everyone should experience.

In a quest to gain approval and positive feedback, Sally became a high school athlete. She swam, dived and ran. She enrolled at East Stroudsburg State College (now East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania) with a dream of becoming a PE teacher. Three and a half years later, with only one semester to go, she ran out of money to fund her education. “I had to stop studying, give up my dream,” she says in Killer Sally.

Like her brother and uncle before her, Sally joined the Marine Corps. She started bodybuilding during her service. “I was trying to get bigger, so I was stronger, to protect myself,” she says in the program. On Valentine’s Day 1987, she placed fourth in her first competition. It was there that a friend introduced her to Ray McNeil, another competitive bodybuilder, in June 1987.

“He Looked Like” [Michelangelo’s] statue of David,” Sally says in the program. “He was beautiful.”

Sally thought she had found the perfect stepfather for her two children from her first marriage. Being around Ray felt “special” to her. They were in a relationship for about two months before getting married. “I thought, ‘What a man I have. I don’t want to lose him,’” Sally says on the show. “When I love someone, I give them everything. You get everything from me.”

(Netflix © 2022)

The family settled in Oceanside, California. Ray and Sally’s popularity grew in the world of bodybuilding. Ray left the Marines in 1991 with the dream of becoming a professional bodybuilder. Sally stayed with the Marines and worked as a cook. “I hated cooking,” she says in the documentary, “but we had to pay the rent.” Money was “very tight,” says Sally’s son John, now an adult, on the program, and Sally routinely collected discarded cans to exchange them for cash.

Despite turning pro, Sally claims in the documentary that Ray continued to be plagued by insecurities about his physique. He and Sally started arguing “a lot more,” Sally’s daughter Shantina, now also an adult, tells the camera.

“He said I was inferior and he was the superior bodybuilder and everything should go to him,” Sally tells Burstein. “I wasn’t good enough from the start. I was never good enough. Ray felt like he was the most important person in the family. He tried to get me to give up on my dream so I could support him.”

Sally made extra income by starring in homemade videos of her wrestling with men – a cottage industry for female bodybuilders at the time. (Bill Wick, who filmed and broadcast the videotapes, traces his attraction back to seeing dancer Vera-Ellen’s leg muscles in the 1954 film. white Christmas starring Bing Crosby.) She also participated in private wrestling sessions with men, a practice known as muscle worship. The men, she tells Burstein on camera, never tried to have sex with her. There were the occasional “bad feelings,” but the money outweighed that “dark side” for her.

At home, Sally says, Ray had “demons to deal with.” Sally, as well as her children John and Shantina, all say they witnessed Ray’s physical abuse in the documentary. On the third day of their wedding, Sally claims Ray punched her in the face and split her lip. A pattern emerged where Ray was abusive and then apologized, and Sally believed it would get better.

But the abuse continued. Ray broke Sally’s nose, according to Sally herself and her two children. The first time Ray strangled her, Sally thought he was going to kill [her.]Ray sometimes forced her to have sex with him. Sally’s daughter Shantina and Ray’s friend DJ Jeffers both recount a violent incident where Ray blinded a man during a physical fight. John says his own relationship with Ray was “a very abusive one”, in which Ray was “abused and beaten” [him] a lot”, especially in the absence of Sally.

In her investigation of Ray and Sally’s marriage, Burstein brings out a range of perspectives. In addition to Sally and her children, we hear from the prosecutor who led the charge against her during the trial, her attorney, friends and more. Sally has always maintained that she shot her husband on February 14, 1995 because she feared for her life. Ray, she says in the documentary, had beaten and choked her, and she “didn’t know what he was capable of.” She thought he was “superhuman.”

Jeffers, a friend of Ray’s, challenges her characterization of Ray’s death, as does—probably—Dan Goldstein, the district attorney at Sally’s trial. Yet Burstein’s documentary is more sophisticated than a simple ‘he said, she said’, taking the time and care to unravel Sally’s own story amid this chorus of voices.

“Sally was not the perfect victim, and victims are often not perfect,” Burstein says during our conversation. “We want them to be perfect, and if they’re not, we get upset.”

John’s voice emerges as one of the most powerful in that regard, acknowledging the abuse he has suffered and seen within the family, and giving his mother the space to exist as a fully fledged, complex person.

“I was actually a bit shocked at how candid John was, and also at the clarity of his memory,” Burstein says. “…I think he really understands his mother the way an adult would, as opposed to a child who sees her through that lens.”

Sally’s criminal trial took place at a higher time for discussions of domestic violence in the public sphere. The OJ Simpson trial was underway at the time Sally was charged with Ray’s murder. It was the year Alan Dershowitz published a book called: The abuse excuse, who claimed that allegations of abuse “allowed people to get away with murder — literally.” Amy Fisher and Lorena Bobbitt had both made headlines in recent years — Fisher, for shooting the wife of the man who had started an affair with her when she was a minor, and Bobbitt, for slitting her husband’s penis while he slept. (She claimed he raped her; he denied it. Both husbands were charged and acquitted.)

For Burstein, Sally’s case was ripe for a media frenzy. “I know this one very well” bad girls, these women who are seen as violent and are judged very unfairly in the public sphere,” she says. In the national press, Sally was nicknamed “the pumped-up princess and the brawny bride and all kinds of ridiculous alliterations,” Burstein recalls.

Without revealing everything, the process and its outcome make for some of the documentary’s most poignant moments. Sally’s muscular physique attracted so much attention during the procedure that her lawyer advised her to stop lifting and remove the shoulder pads from her clothing so that she would appear smaller.

Sally McNeil in a bodybuilding pose

(Netflix © 2022)

In the courtroom, the prosecutor painted a scenario in which Sally acted of her own volition, out of jealousy, at a time when Ray saw another woman. Goldstein leaned aggressively into Sally’s bodybuilding career and turned her into the aggressor. “She’s a bully. She’s a criminal,” Goldstein told the jury in his opening statement. “And that’s hard to say when you’re talking about a woman, but Sally McNeil has managed to bridge the gender gap.”

However, Sally has remained undaunted in her characterization of that night: “It wasn’t jealous rage,” she tells Burstein in the documentary. “It was fear.”

Key to things like Sally’s is the concept of imminent threat, one of the components that, if present, can bolster a claim of self-defense. It refers to the idea that one’s life must be in immediate danger to justify the use of deadly force. For Burstein, the way this concept is handled in cases where domestic violence is alleged “needs to be reformed.”

“The burden of proof of an imminent threat is so specific,” she says during our conversation, adding that “if something out of the ordinary happens — what it will be in that situation, when you shoot someone in self-defense” a suspect will likely have a harder time to advocate self-defense.

“It happens to so many cases I’ve read about since then, where it’s not considered self-defense for various reasons,” she adds, “because it wasn’t considered an imminent threat or the burden of proof is [deemed] impossible because there were no eyewitnesses.”

Killer Sally ends on a poignant note and offers the possibility of hope at the end of a harrowing story. Burstein says she saw the story as an “onion” she wanted to peel, exploring layer after layer of complexity. The nuance of the documentary is not at the expense of intelligibility. There is clarity at the end of this road.

Killer Sally will be released November 2 by Netflix in the US and UK

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