On Valentine’s Day 1995, bodybuilder and former Marine Sally McNeil shot her husband Ray McNeil to death - and 27 years later, she is telling her story.
The mother of two is the subject of Netflix’s three-part docuseries "Killer Sally," which examines the salacious crime that gripped both the bodybuilding community and the nation. It features new interviews with McNeil and her children, those who knew the couple, as well as investigators associated with the case.
Director and Oscar nominee Nanette Burstein told Fox News Digital that McNeil’s story "is just as relevant today as it was in the ‘90s."
"Revisiting some of our legal and social issues with domestic violence - it needs a reckoning," said Burstein. "It wasn’t just what happened in the ‘90s. It’s still happening now."
Burstein described McNeil as "disarmingly honest," someone who says "what is exactly on her mind."
"She remarkably has a naivety about her," Burstein explained. "She’s also a very complex woman. She’s both full of regret, as well as extremely hopeful about the future. I think what surprised me the most is the complexity of her character. On one hand, she’s a very strong and powerful woman. But she also had an amazing vulnerability about her - a surprising vulnerability about her, I should say. She came from a background of abuse and there was definitely a cycle of abuse in her life."
"But at the same time, she was a tough broad, and she was not in any way the ideal victim," Burnstein continued. "We want victims to be perfect, and she was not perfect. She had some anger management issues. So I do think she’s just a very complicated person."
McNeil first met Ray at a gym in the ‘80s when he was 23, and she was 27. In the documentary, McNeil described the attraction as "lust at first sight" and compared her beau to "the statue of David." They were married two months later and seemingly appeared as the ultimate California power couple.
"It was a very romantic courtship," said Burnstein. "He rolled out the red carpet for her, wined and dined her. And they had so much in common. They were both Marines. They were both bodybuilders. They were both very young… They were very attracted to one another. He was really nice to her children. It was sort of seemingly a storybook romance. But it did not continue to be that way."
The relationship quickly became toxic and was plagued by violence. McNeil claimed three days after they married, Ray punched her in the face. She also said that Ray repeatedly choked her and, at one point, broke her nose in front of her young children, Shantina and John Lowden. While Ray was named Mr. California in 1991, McNeil said he had "insecurities" about his physique, which led him to use anabolic steroids. McNeil said she wrestled men for money, which allowed Ray to focus on bodybuilding full-time.
During this time, McNeil had several violent outbursts of her own. In 1990, she was suspended for a year from the National Physique Committee after attacking a woman she suspected was having an affair with her spouse. According to court documents, she also had altercations with barroom bouncers and police.
"I asked her if she used to buy steroids for Ray," said Burnstein. "She used to go to Mexico and I asked her if she took her kids because they had told me separately that had happened. While she admitted that was the case, she was upset talking about it because she was embarrassed she had done that. She felt that it was bad parenting. And I think she prided herself on trying to be a good mom in the face of a really tough situation during an abusive relationship."
"She loves her two kids dearly, and they were a huge, important part of her life," Burnstein added.
Burnstein noted that for the children, now grown, it was difficult for them to relive the past on camera. John Lowden said that Ray would "spank" him and his sister while the other sibling watched. Shantina Lowden described her stepfather as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." They also recalled hearing the sounds of their mother gasping for air as she was being choked.
The couple’s tumultuous eight-year marriage came to a brutal end on Valentine’s Day 1995. According to court documents, Ray said he was going to the local Price Club that night to get chicken for dinner. However, he returned hours later. McNeil questioned Ray and asked him if he was with another woman. An argument ensued. McNeil told police that Ray slapped her, pushed her down on the floor and began choking her. She managed to get away and grabbed her shotgun. She aimed at Ray and fired. McNeil claimed Ray came towards her, so she shot him a second time.
The documentary included the 911 call where McNeil’s shaky voice is heard as her daughter screamed. Ray was still alive. Court documents said Ray moaned, "Why did you shoot me?" and McNeil responded, "I told you that I wasn’t taking your s--- anymore." When paramedics arrived, they saw Ray’s jaw completely shattered as his liver protruded through his skin. The wound on his midsection proved to be fatal. Ray later died at the hospital and McNeil was charged with murder.
Burnstein said she is unsure if steroids played a significant role in the pair’s doomed marriage.
"It certainly didn’t help," she explained. "It definitely alters people’s moods. Ray particularly was on five different steroids at any given time during his professional bodybuilding career. Sally might have been one at any given time so that doesn’t help a volatile situation. But I don’t think it creates one. What is talked about in the series is that steroids, while they can amp up your personality, they don’t create something that’s not there. So if you don’t have anger management issues, it wouldn’t necessarily create it. In this case, because the relationship was volatile, it definitely made things worse. But the reason for that volatility was that there was a cycle of violence. They both came from really complicated backgrounds where there had been physical abuse."
The case became a tabloid sensation and McNeil was nicknamed "Brawny Bride" and "Pumped Up Princess." She still believes her muscular appearance as a woman and bodybuilding background worked against her during the trial.
"The series is called ‘Killer Sally’ because that was a character name that she had as a wrestler, and that was brought up at trial," Burnstein explained. "There was a poster of her with the name ‘Killer Sally’ where she’s holding what ended up being the murder weapon. It was a marketing poster and while it was in no way evidence of any kind in the trial, because the prosecution was allowed to show that to the jury, it was pretty devastating for Sally’s case."
"I think, sadly, there’s still the misconception that women should just leave [from an abusive relationship]," Burnstein continued. "‘Why don’t you just leave?’ [It’s] a very complicated issue. A lot of times people don’t leave because they grew up in a violent home, and they’ve normalized violence. Even if that hasn’t happened, and they find themselves trapped in a situation with a partner who is abusing them, the most dangerous time is actually when you leave them. That’s when they’re most likely to kill you, and you have no one to defend you. Even if you go to the police, they cannot have 24-hour protection of your house… So I think people are terrified, and they don’t know how to get out of it once they’re in it. This is just as true today as it was in the ‘90s, unfortunately."
McNeil insisted she used the gun in self-defense. The prosecution argued that the murder was premeditated and that Ray was planning on leaving McNeil for another woman. In 1996, she was convicted of second-degree murder. She was released in 2020 from prison and has since started a new life for herself.
Burnstein said that today, McNeil does not view herself as a violent person, and while she regrets killing Ray, McNeil does not feel justice was served.
"I think she feels that she was acting in self-defense, and yet she went to prison for many years - decades," said Burnstein. "… I think she feels remorse that she got herself into an abusive situation, and then it had to end in that way."
Netflix's "Killer Sally" is now available for streaming.