Few things could have drawn Justine Ruszczyk Damond away from her life in Australia. She grew up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, mere minutes from the shoreline.
She adored it all: The sun. The water. Her family.
Then, she met Don Damond, a Minnesotan.
“I never thought you could measure love,” she once told a crowd at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community on a wintry day, “but this is how much I love this man. To move from the beach in Sydney to here.”
Damond arrived in Minnesota in 2015 to begin her life with her fiancé, taking his last name professionally and filling their shared home in the Fulton neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis with her quirky stuffed animals. It was there that Damond summoned police to report a possible sexual assault on a summer night nearly two years ago and was fatally shot in the alley.
“It was her heart that sent her out there that night,” Don Damond said in the weeks after the July 2017 shooting. “It’s just who she is.”
A spiritual healer and meditation teacher, Damond, 40, rooted her work in helping people come to better understand themselves and their potential, relatives and friends said.
Those who knew her say she lived guided by love and openness, a bride-to-be who once saved ducklings from a storm drain.
Friends rarely saw her in makeup, so unlike the polished portrait of Damond splashed across media coverage that has spanned the globe since her death. They instead remember a woman who, more often than not, swept her hair into a ponytail and could stay in her pajamas for days at a time while working on big projects.
Justine Ruszczyk was born in Iran to John and Margaret Ruszczyk in 1977, the youngest of two children. She was raised in Sydney, where relatives recall her caring for injured animals from an early age, bringing home creatures with three legs or a broken wing.
She decided to train as a veterinary surgeon but soon felt the work was more about business and not enough about animals, her fiancé said.
Her mother’s battle with alcoholism and death from cancer spurred Damond to reconsider her path. She turned her focus to how science and spirituality intersect, delving into the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor and neuroscientist.
“I became obsessed with what people call miracles,” Damond once recounted at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, where she regularly led meditation. “I decided to pay attention to things that were extraordinary.”
Neighbors called her a “bright light” with a clever sense of humor. Don Damond called her “Muppine” — a playful nod to her love of all things Muppets.
The couple met at a Colorado meditation retreat in 2012. He fell hard and fast and waited until she loved him in return. So began a romance that spanned an ocean.
A park bench dedicated to Damond now sits on the banks of Minnehaha Creek under an ash tree, close to where the couple first said “I love you” by phone. They had planned to marry in Hawaii.
A year after her death, about 100 people gathered at the bench to toss pink flowers into the creek in her honor.
In the months after the shooting, Damond said he spent many Saturday nights visiting the makeshift memorial in the alley where she died. There, he said, he’d often find candles lit by unseen strangers in the night.