The first words Don Damond heard his fiancée speak keep returning to his mind.
“Don’t worry about it,” she told someone. “Everything is going to be OK. It’s all going to work out.”
It feels like she is still saying those words, even now, amid the grief.
Two weeks have passed since Justine Ruszczyk Damond summoned police to help a stranger in the dark, dialing 911 to report what she believed was a sexual assault near her Minneapolis home. Within minutes of two officers arriving, one pulled his gun, taking Damond’s life and upending the lives of those who loved her.
“Although in this situation it feels like these words couldn’t be more wrong, I also know that they couldn’t be more true,” Don Damond, 50, said in his home Friday. “I know she goes on.”
The incident rocked a city still reeling from other police shootings. Many questions about that night remain, and they’re questions Don Damond said he prefers not to dwell on. The investigation continues, and with it has come renewed debate about police misconduct, changes in body camera policy and the abrupt resignation of the Minneapolis police chief.
But what has claimed Damond’s focus now, he said, is remembering the person Justine Damond was and the work she dedicated her life to accomplishing before her name became a fixture in international headlines. A memorial is planned for 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Lake Harriet Band Shell — a place with special meaning. It was the last spot the engaged couple took a photo together.
As a spiritual healer and a meditation teacher, Damond, 40, anchored her work in the wellness of others. She was building a life and livelihood in America, drawn from Sydney’s beaches to a colder, lake-filled land by the man she planned to marry.
Their home is filled with her quirky stuffed animals, or her “creatures,” as she called them. He often called her “Muppine” — a playful nickname and ode to her unabashed love of all things Muppets.
Each day, Don Damond awakens to the memories and mementos left behind by the woman with the disarming wit and a habit of piling clothes on the floor. Mornings have been hardest, he said. There are still moments upon waking that he forgets she’s gone.
“It has just been gut-wrenching,” Damond said.
From Australia to Minnesota
Justine Ruszczyk was born in Iran to John and Margaret Ruszczyk in 1977, the youngest of two children. Her American father and Australian mother lived there while teaching English.
But she grew up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, a mere 10 minutes from the shoreline. She often brought animals home, nurturing those with three legs or a broken wing.
She had originally trained as a veterinary surgeon, but soon felt like the work was more about business and less about animals, her fiancé said.
Her mother’s death from cancer and battle with alcoholism proved to be a turning point. Damond feared that illness and addiction would also be her genetic destiny, which she explained in a talk at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community.
“I became obsessed with what people call miracles,” Damond told the crowd. “I decided to pay attention to things that were extraordinary.”
She discovered Dr. Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor and neuroscientist whose work delves into the brain, the body and human potential. Much of her time in recent years had been dedicated to developing a coaching program based on his teachings.
She entered Don Damond’s world five years ago at a meditation retreat in Colorado. A long-distance courtship gradually unfolded.
She wanted marriage and a child and hoped to end up in Sydney. He agreed. Eventually, he picked out a ring and proposed in San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge in view.
She made the tough decision to leave Australia in 2015 and join Damond and his son Zach in the Twin Cities, going by her fiancé’s name even before they married. Don Damond, who grew up in the area, is general manager of Little Six Casino in Prior Lake. She cried the first month after the move, despite the couple’s happiness in finally living under one roof.
They practiced yoga together and relished trips to nearby Lake Harriet.
Soon she embraced Minnesota’s four seasons and found her favorite local spots, eating eggs Benedict at the Birchwood Cafe and fish tacos at Muddy Waters and pizza on gluten-free crust at Pizzeria Lola. She volunteered at the local animal rescue Secondhand Hounds — but couldn’t resist bringing a dog named Mali home. Seeing Lake Superior, where the couple traveled together, reminded her the most of home.
The cold she found trickier to love, despite every effort to inoculate herself against it with scarves, Ugg boots and enthusiasm.
“She tried really hard to like winter,” said Sharon Hills-Bonczyk, a close family friend. But still, she was “always cold.”
The polished portrait of Damond circulating in media coverage doesn’t necessarily jibe with the woman close friends knew. She could get gussied up, sure. But more often she went without makeup, her hair swept into a ponytail.
She could stay in her pajamas for days while working on a big project. She used profanity in the natural Aussie way, and apologized for it in the beginning. She watched “The Voice” and loved Gwen Stefani.
She knew how to tell people to lighten up and could cut through a too-serious attitude with a well-timed joke.
“She was so genuine,” said Summer Hills-Bonczyk, Sharon’s daughter.
In the days since Damond’s death, wedding plans have shifted to organizing her memorial. But friends intend to place two small glass hearts on the beach Aug. 17 in Kona, Hawaii, on the day and in the place the couple had planned to marry.
Neighbors are still delivering meals. Notes and flowers remain at the memorial site near the alley where Damond died.
“It was her heart that sent her out there that night,” Don Damond said of the events leading up to the shooting. “It’s just who she is.”
The community’s response, including the support he’s received from Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, has taken him by surprise. Castile, whose son was shot to death by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016, visited Damond during a march last week.
“It was incredibly powerful to be with her, just to be with people who understand the grief,” he said. “Very few people know what this feels like. It’s a pretty small club, though the club is still too big.”