In October of 2022, Netflix released a three-part documentary series called Killer Sally, chronicling the life, marriage, and murder trial of bodybuilder Sally McNeil who, in 1996, was convicted of killing her husband, fellow bodybuilder Ray McNeil. Directed by Nanette Burstein, known for such documentaries as the Academy Award-nominated On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture, and Hillary, the three episodes of Killer Sally each document different aspects of Sally’s life, her crime, and the trial that decided her fate.
But just who was Sally McNeil, and how did she go from U. S. Marine and promising bodybuilder to convicted murderer? These and many other questions still surround the high-profile case, and we’ve done our best to answer them here.
Who was Sally McNeil?
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Sally McNeil (nee Dempsey) was an athlete from the time she entered high school. Following in the footsteps of her brother and uncle, she joined the United States Marine Corps, where she served for eleven years. During that time, she won the U. S. Armed Services Physique Championship twice over, once alongside her husband, Ray McNeil. It was the only time a married couple had ever won the championship in separate categories.
Though she attained the rank of sergeant, she was demoted and ultimately discharged due to her “continuously poor behavioral record.” According to Sally, this was the result of her “tough” upbringing. “My step-dad beat the hell out of us,” Sally tells the interviewer in the Netflix documentary, recalling that she experienced violence at home so regularly that she came to regard it as simply a part of family life.
It was in the Marines that Sally met Ray McNeil, her second husband, and eventual victim. By Sally’s account, Ray began abusing her within three days of their wedding. According to Sally, Ray remained abusive throughout their 8 years of marriage—right up until the night she shot him.
Who was Ray McNeil?
Another former Marine and competitive bodybuilder, Ray McNeil poured much of his family’s resources into his bodybuilding career. Called “one of the most muscular pros alive,” Ray had the opportunity to go far, and eventually competed in the Mr. Olympia competition in 1993.
While Ray competed, Sally McNeil had also left the Marines and was making a living doing what some in the industry call "muscle prostitution'—private wrestling matches with men who paid her up to $300 an hour to be manhandled by a muscular woman in hotel rooms, their own homes, or even Sally’s apartment. She also recorded and sold videos of similar put-on “wrestling” matches. Much of her money went toward Ray’s bodybuilding, while the rest of the family struggled.
As Ray became more seriously involved in bodybuilding, both he and Sally began using anabolic steroids, which she would sometimes drive to Tijuana to procure. At the time of his death, Ray had 5 different types of steroids in his system.
While Ray already had what his friends called a “short fuse,” the “roid rages” that he would go into as a result of steroid use only amplified his abuse, according to Sally. Nor was his violence isolated to her. In the Netflix documentary, the two children Sally had from her previous marriage give chilling accounts of the abuse they suffered at the hands of their stepfather. “I really hated him,” her son John says. “He was literally like the devil to me.”
What did Sally McNeil do?
On Valentine’s Day in 1995, Sally McNeil called 9-1-1. “I just shot my husband because he just beat me up,” she told the dispatcher. The weapon was a sawed-off shotgun that the couple kept for security. With it, she shot Ray McNeil twice—once in the gut, and once in the face.
According to the police transcript, Sally’s husband “slapped her, pushed her down on the floor, and started choking her” following an argument after he came home late because he had been spending time with another woman, with whom he had been having an extended affair. From there, “McNeil squirmed away, ran into the bedroom, and took her sawed-off shotgun out of its case in the closet.”
Sally McNeil pled self-defense, claiming that she feared for her life as Ray McNeil choked her, but evidence that came to light during the trial—which began on Valentine’s Day in 1996, a year to the day after she shot her husband—called that into question. In the docuseries, the interviewer asks Sally if she was ever afraid that Ray would use the shotgun on her, and she replies that it never occurred to her because he didn’t need a weapon if he wanted to harm her. “He was a weapon,” she says.
What was the outcome of her trial and how did her own sordid past factor in?
“It’s been instilled in me that I’m the violent one,” Sally says to the interviewer in the Netflix docuseries. Evidence presented during Sally’s trial suggests that this isn’t just gaslighting. While Sally may have been abused, she was also capable of significant violence herself. The prosecution brought forth everything from Sally’s service record—which called her “argumentative and disrespectful”—to evidence of past arrests for assault and attacking police officers.
This, combined with Sally’s work doing “muscle prostitution” and wrestling videos in which she was dubbed “Killer Sally”—the name Netflix would recycle for its docuseries—helped to convince the jury that Sally was not in any immediate danger from her husband. The nail in the coffin of her defense, however, was forensic evidence which suggested that she had taken the second shot at Ray while he was already on the ground, and that she had returned to the closet to get a second bullet in order to reload.
It didn’t help that the trial had become a media circus. “I just feel badly that we the media—me included—didn’t delve more into who was Sally McNeil? Who was she really, past the greased-up muscles and the steroids? We didn’t do that then,” journalist Diane Dimond, who reported on the trial, says in the Netflix docuseries. “If I could meet her, I might apologize to her for that.”
Ultimately, the jury convicted her of second-degree murder. She was handed a sentence of 19 years to life in prison, of which she served 25, before finally being granted parole in 2020.
Where is Sally McNeil now?
Though the Netflix docuseries covers a tragic situation, it does not end in tragedy. In fact, it ends with a wedding, as Sally McNeil marries for a third time, this time to a man she met while living in housing provided by the Veterans Transitional Center after her release. It also shows her reconciling with her adult children, and meeting one of her grandchildren.
“Life is good,” she says. “Freedom tastes wonderful.”