Cop Who Killed Justine Damond Claims She Startled Him

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There was something bad going on in the alleyway behind the house, she told her fiancé on the phone, someone who sounded as if she was in distress, maybe a rape. It was past 11 p.m., and most people on Washburn Avenue were furled in their beds.

Except Justine Damond, alone at home with the noises, her anxiety creeping into the loud Las Vegas casino where her fiancé had answered the phone.

They had met five years ago, when they lived 9,000 miles apart, beginning a courtship at first halting and then headlong. Now the wedding dress was ordered, the suit bought, the invitations sent, the ceremony set for an August weekend in Hawaii. But last Saturday night, they have separated again.

Her fiancé, Don Damond, told her to call 911. They stayed on the phone until she said the police had arrived. Stay put, he told her. Call me back, he told her.

“I have played this over in my head over and over,” Mr. Damond said on Friday in his first interview since that night. “Why didn’t I stay on the phone with her?”

The events of the next few minutes will be anatomized and argued over and, maybe, at some point, contested in court. But this much is established: As the squad car she had summoned slid down the alley, Justine Damond went up to the police officers inside, one of whom, for reasons still unknown, fired his gun, hit her in the abdomen and killed her.

Even to Americans now used to dissecting police shootings, the circumstances were an odd jolt: a black Somali-American cop, firing at a white Australian woman among the garages and green compost bins of an unremarkable strip of Midwestern concrete.

In Australia, where Ms. Damond, 40, grew up, there was agony and disbelief, the prime minister voicing bafflement, the tabloids in full cry. In the United States, there were questions about the officer’s failure to turn on his body camera, about firearms procedures, and about the role race has played in how officials responded. On Friday, the Minneapolis police chief was forced to resign.

And in interviews this past week in Sydney and Minneapolis, Ms. Damond’s friends and her fiancé were trying to fill in the blanks of her final night.

A week has passed. A cardboard sign at the end of the alleyway, propped amid the flowers laid there by friends and neighbors, asks the still-unanswered question: Why?

She was the luminous Australian in the Fulton neighborhood of Minneapolis, leading meditation sessions, scattering her communications with rainbow emojis and greeting people with, “Hello, beautiful!”

One moment her friends remember her for is the time she rescued a flock of ducklings from a street drain, descending barefoot to scoop them up. It was only last month.

At one of the talks she occasionally gave at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, Ms. Damond, again barefoot, told the story: “You’ve never lived until you’ve had eight ducklings fling themselves into your lap because they’ve realized you’re trying to help,” she said. “So beautiful!”

Born in pre-revolutionary Iran to an Australian mother and an American father who was teaching English in Tehran, Justine Ruszczyk grew up on Sydney’s North Shore with an affinity for horses, a three-legged dog named Brad and any animal she could rescue and nurse to health in her home. Her mother was a nurse midwife; her father owned a bookstore.

She studied to become a veterinarian, but disliked that so much of the job consisted of spaying animals, said Sara Baldwin, her godmother. Then, when she was 22, her mother died of cancer. In pain and confusion, she went to an ashram, emerging from a three-week silent retreat with a determination to practice a different kind of healing.

“There was a time when I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay on the planet,” she wrote on her blog in August 2014. “It took me 13 years to come to where I am now — living with a deeply connected understanding of what it means to be a spiritual being in this very physical experience, a clear and grounded understanding of how this reality around me comes into being — and to be honest it was a pretty long and painful journey at times.”

She found what she was looking for in the teachings of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor with a wide following for his ideas about changing lives through the power of the human brain. At a meditation retreat in Colorado Springs in 2012, she met Mr. Damond, a casino manager from Minneapolis.

“Hey, I just met my future wife,” he told a friend when he returned. “The only problem is, she lives 9,000 miles away.”

They chatted on Facebook for months, but when Mr. Damond declared his feelings for her, Ms. Ruszczyk went silent for more than a year. She told friends that she did not reciprocate until, having drawn up a list of the traits she wanted in a partner, she realized Mr. Damond was a match.

They met in Maui, in Australia, in San Francisco, impatient with happiness. The day he planned to propose, standing in the Marin Headlands with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, it was cold, and she kept trying to put her hand in his coat pocket where he had the ring. He had to keep grabbing her hand to stop her from finding it before he was ready to pull it out himself.

She said yes.

Reluctantly leaving Australia, Ms. Ruszczyk, who through her father was an American citizen, moved to Minneapolis in 2015.

“She had her family there,” Mr. Damond said on Friday. “All her friends, lifelong relationships, and she moved here for one person.”

Though she took his name, they put off marrying, partly because a wedding with families on two sides of the world would be hard to organize, partly because Ms. Damond was so absorbed in a new project, creating training materials for Mr. Dispenza.

Someday, she told Ms. Baldwin, she hoped she and Don would return to Sydney.

It was not only the weather or her friends or family that drew her back.

“She didn’t like the guns” in the United States, Ms. Baldwin said. “She didn’t like the violence.”

‘We Think It’s Justine’

With Mr. Damond in Las Vegas for work, she had been sleeping on his side of the bed — the left, under a pair of dream catchers — when she heard a scream for help.

She walked over the white shag rug to the windows that overlook the backyard. She peeked past the massive oak tree. The noise was coming from near a neighbor’s garage on the right, she told Mr. Damond.

At 11:27, a call came in to 911.

“Hi, I’m, I can hear someone out back and I, I’m not sure if she’s having sex or being raped,” Ms. Damond reported, according to a transcript released by the Minneapolis police.

“We’ve already got help on the way,” the operator promised.

Eight minutes later, officers had not arrived. Ms. Damond called back, wondering if they had gone to the wrong place. They were coming, the operator reassured her.

Nearby, Officer Matthew Harrity, with a year on the force, and Officer Mohamed Noor, with 21 months, got the call.

Officer Noor had been the first Somali cop in the immigrant-rich Fifth Precinct, his hiring hailed by the mayor and Minneapolis’s Somali community. He was supposed to be a bridge, leaping over the chasm of ingrained suspicion between the community and the police.

Here, now, he was another officer, less than three hours from the end of a 10-hour shift.

They turned their Ford Explorer into the alleyway behind Ms. Damond’s house, driving south along a stretch of concrete and asphalt wide enough only for one car. Their lights were off. Under the street lamps, the detached garages on either side were pale in their vinyl sidings.

As they reached the end of the alley, Officer Harrity, who was driving, was startled by a loud noise near the squad car, he told investigators. Then Ms. Damond came up to his open window.

Officer Noor fired.

Past his partner, through the window, the bullet found Ms. Damond’s abdomen. The officers got out of the car, calling back to the dispatch center, as the operator’s computer recorded the first sign that lives were about to change on two continents: “ONE DOWN … STARTING CPR.”



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