Woman slain by Minneapolis officer 'yearned to help people'
By JEFF BAENEN
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - When Justine Ruszczyk Damond heard someone cry out in the alley behind her home in July 2017, she did what she had spent a lifetime doing: She immediately tried to help.
Damond called 911 not once but twice to report what she thought was a sexual assault. When officers arrived, she ran outside in her bare feet and pajamas, prosecutors say. Moments later, she lay dying of a gunshot fired by the officer who is now on trial in her death.
The 40-year-old life coach and yoga instructor with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Australia "yearned to help people," according to a $50 million lawsuit filed by her family. That lawsuit is on hold while former officer Mohamed Noor stands trial on murder and manslaughter charges.
Originally trained as a veterinary surgeon in Australia, Damond was known as an animal lover. To her friends' children, she was "Auntie Juzzy." She received a veterinary degree from the University of Sydney in 2002 but decided to pursue personal health as a career path, according to the lawsuit, which was filed a little over a year after her death.
Growing up, Damond said on a YouTube video , she saw addiction, depression and cancer in her family. That led to her interest in meditation and yoga. She taught meditation classes and before her death was preparing a curriculum for meditative training, the lawsuit said.
Her fiancé, Don Damond, recalled Tuesday on the witness stand how she put masking tape across the bottom half of a glass door at their Minneapolis home to prevent a rescue dog that "didn't understand what glass was" from crashing into it.
The dog traveled from half a world away to join the family. Justine Damond, who had already taken her fiance's last name professionally, had heard from friends that a woman in Egypt could no longer care for three of her dogs. So she rented a van, drove to Chicago, where the dogs had been flown, and returned with them to Minneapolis, where she cared for them until she could find them new homes, her fiance testified.
Video taken just weeks before her death shows her rescuing ducklings from a storm sewer, gathering up the tiny birds in her skirt and returning them to their mother.
Don Damond testified that he was on a business trip to Las Vagas the night of the shooting. The couple were set to be married a month later in Hawaii. Instead, hundreds of mourners attended a lakeside memorial service at the same time the family had planned to be on a plane to the wedding. An Australian flag was displayed prominently on stage next to her picture.
The couple met in 2012 while at a meditation seminar in Colorado. Don Damond testified that it was love at first sight. He said his bride-to-be "had a gift that people just wanted to be around her."
In January 2015, he proposed and she accepted. The couple originally planned to move to Australia, but Don Damond's son, Zach, was concerned about being half a world away from his father. Justine Damond agreed to move to the Fullton neighborhood of Minneapolis, a low-crime, middle-class area, according to the family's lawsuit.
Just before 11:30 p.m. on July 15, 2017, she called her fiance and described hearing "a woman in distress." She believed the screams were coming from the alley behind their neighbor's house. Don Damond suggested she call police. He said the couple had a sense they had called "the right people."
After she called 911, Don Damond said to himself, "All will be well."
More than eight minutes after her first 911 call, after seeing that no police had arrived, Justine Damond called again to make sure emergency dispatchers had her correct address. She also called her husband-to-be again and said she was still hearing the woman in distress. She then hung up, telling him, "OK, the police are here." It was the last time they spoke.
He has since sold the house, saying that it was "too painful" to stay there.
Prosecutors charge Noor acted recklessly when he fired one shot across his partner and through the open driver's side window of the police SUV, striking Damond in the abdomen and killing her. Defense attorneys argue Noor was defending himself and his partner and that the shooting was "a perfect storm with tragic consequences."
Noor's patrol partner, Matthew Harrity, said he heard a thump that startled him just before the shooting and that the officers "got spooked" when Justine Damond approached them. But prosecutor Patrick Lofton said in his opening statement that Harrity did not describe any noise while at the scene and only mentioned it for the first time days later to investigators. Lofton also said forensic evidence will show that Justine Damond did not touch the squad car before she was shot, raising questions about whether she hit or slapped the SUV.
Crime-scene photos and video played in court Wednesday show Damond's body covered by a white sheet at the base of a driveway near the police squad car.
Just 1 minute and 19 seconds after talking to her fiancé for the last time, she was cradling her abdomen from a gunshot wound, saying "I'm dying."
Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report.
Check out the AP's complete coverage of Mohamed Noor's trial.
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