Don Damond spent hours preparing to stand before the television cameras near his front lawn and talk about his fiancée Justine Damond, who died July 15 in a police shooting in the alley behind Washburn Avenue at West 51st Street. So when he finished his statement and walked inside, his friends were surprised to see him head out again.
“I want to hug my neighbors,” friends recalled him saying.
Neighbors noticed the household ran out of Kleenex and brought fresh boxes. Friends intercepted bridesmaid dresses arriving for the wedding next month. Others spent time meditating with the family, and paged through a scrapbook created for Justine’s 40th birthday.
The last words Don heard from his fiancée were that police had arrived, according to friends. She had called 911 to report hearing sex noises and a woman yell out “help.” She called a second time eight minutes later, still hearing screaming behind the house, to make sure police were coming.
According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the officers drove south into the alley with the squad lights off, searching for a suspect. As they neared 51st Street, the officer driving the squad said he was startled by a loud sound. A search warrant said a woman slapped the back of the patrol squad. The officer said Justine approached the open driver’s side window, and Officer Mohamed Noor shot from the passenger seat. She died of a single gunshot wound to the abdomen.
Noor has so far declined to share information with the BCA; his attorney shared Noor’s condolences with some news outlets and did not respond for comment.
The shooting jarred community members and prompted vigils and marches, some silent and some with megaphones. Mayor Betsy Hodges asked for the resignation of Police Chief Janeé Harteau. City officials are revisiting policies on body cameras and use of force.
While anger is often expressed on the microphones, it’s not the prevailing emotion at the Damond house, according to friends. Sharon Hills-Bonczyk said the apparent fight-or-flight response in the shooting opens an opportunity to take a breath and understand how this can happen.
“That’s what her work was all about,” she said. “…Are we operating out of fear, or out of love? I think all her work revolved around how we can grow and support each other in love.”
Friend Jay Peterson said he expects Damond’s spiritual group of friends to “take the high road.”
“Hopefully that can spread. I know that’s what Justine would want, cause, I mean the officer that did the shooting, he’s in this hell right now,” he said. “He just shot a meditation teacher. He’s going to be paying [for] that for the rest of his life. So having compassion for him and his family, we’ll probably be holding some kind of thing for him too. Cause we’re all connected.”
To coincide with a sunrise vigil in Australia, Damond’s friends and family gathered for a silent vigil at Don’s house. And while Australians threw flowers into the ocean near her childhood home, her Minneapolis friends gathered in silence at 5809 YOGA, the yoga studio she attended in the Kenny neighborhood.
Justine Ruszczyk, who adopted Don’s name ahead of the wedding, was born in Iran, spent much of her life in Australia and moved to the U.S. in recent years. She worked for years at her father’s Dymocks Books shop near Sydney, overseeing the children’s section for a time.
“She’d tell stories about how she literally grew up in a bookstore, right next to where she lived,” Hills-Bonczyk said.
In videotaped lectures at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, Justine said she went through a difficult period in younger years. After losing much of her mother’s extended family to cancer, Justine watched her mother battle alcoholism and depression. Justine said she felt terrified of the genes in her own body, and developed an eating disorder through extreme juice detoxing. Her mother died of cancer when Justine was about 22.
“As I watched her as I was growing up, I was so determined not to be her. Not to fall down the way that she had fallen down,” Justine said.
She became interested in “the extraordinary,” taking advantage of her father’s bookstore to research topics like miracles and spontaneous remissions.
She trained as a yoga instructor in Bali and spent time in India, and went on to work as a senior trainer for Joe Dispenza, a lecturer and author who talks about rewiring the brain to effect life change.
Don Damond first saw Justine present at a Dispenza workshop. Friends said he followed her around like a puppy, even though he thought she was out of his league. It helped that Justine had recently made a list of 20 qualities she was looking for in a man, and he had them all.
“Both of them just dove into it,” said friend Summer Hills-Bonczyk. “It was a bit of a fairytale.”
Sharon said she was a bit nervous to see Don’s Australian girlfriend relocate to Minneapolis in the middle of winter, but Justine embraced Minnesota culture. She played in the leaves in fall and was astonished to learn about ice shanties standing on frozen lakes.
She hosted meditation nights at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community and volunteered at Secondhand Hounds, where she drew on her education in veterinary medicine to help with rescue animal intakes. She once met a woman in Egypt who rescued animals. When the woman broke her arm, she flew dogs to Justine, who took them in and found them homes.
“Animals reacted to her differently than they reacted to the general public,” said Rachel Mairose, executive director of Secondhand Hounds. “She had a calming energy.”
People adored her too, she said. Mairose met Justine during a dog temperament test that typically takes 15 minutes. They ended up talking for two hours.
“She knew and was close to people all over the world,” Mairose said. “It’s incredible how many connections she made.”
Jay Peterson talked about her humor, on display when another friend recently suggested a pizza night.
“She said, ‘We’re in a cleanse right now because we’re getting ready for the wedding, so we’ll just have some vegetables.’ And as soon as we get there, she’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know who hijacked my phone. We’re going to eat whatever we want.’”
Everyone was looking forward to their Hawaii wedding on the beach next month, Sharon said.
“Justine had said these were the happiest years of her life,” she said.
Family friend Tom Hyder recalled his last conversation with Justine the week she died — she’d been awake until 4 a.m. the night before preparing for a new meditation course.
“She was on fire about her work,” he said.
In lectures at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, she played a video of hearing-impaired people using equipment to hear sound for the first time. She skyped with a “breatharian” who was living on three or four meals per week. She said bodies become conditioned to live in a stress response and replay the day’s awful moments, and she recommended exercise, deep breathing and “gratitude meditation” to break the brain’s habits and change perceptions about what is possible.
“I want my superpower to be the bringer of spring,” she said in one lecture, describing the image of spring returning to a dark landscape in Disney movies. “I wanted that energy, that essence to be me. I wanted it to be me in every person I met, so there’s creativity and inspiration and growth with every person I come in contact with in my coaching and my healing work. I wanted that energy to be there in my community, and I wanted that to filter through to the planet.”
Justine’s family has created a memorial fund in her name to support charitable causes related to social justice, available through generosity.com.