The woman with kind eyes and an easy smile looked for glimmers of love all around — even in the trees.
Justine Damond once spotted the words “Love is everywhere” in felt lettering, stuck on branches near a lakeshore. She saw the message as a reward for taking a new route on a well-worn walking path, calling it a “hug from the universe” in a 2015 blog post.
Friends and neighbors say the yoga instructor, meditation teacher and soon-to-be-bride exuded warmth and light. It’s why, they say, her death from police gunfire near a dark alley near her home Saturday night is so unnerving.
They don’t know why she died. They don’t know what transpired in the moments before shots erupted. So instead, they’re clinging to memories of the woman who made them laugh and taught them something about healing and gratitude.
“She was a teacher to so many in living a life of openness, love and kindness,” her fiancé, Don Damond, said Monday outside the Minneapolis home they shared. “Our lives are forever changed as a result of knowing her.”
Justine Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, moved to Minneapolis from Sydney, Australia, several years ago, wanting to be with Don Damond, friends said.
She trained as a veterinarian before turning her attention to meditation and its “neuro-scientific benefits,” according to her personal website. Watching family members suffer from alcoholism and such illnesses as cancer drove her to a life spent helping people heal.
Damond, 40, regularly taught meditation classes at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, where members recalled her wit and aplomb. Her fiancé led a men’s group there, said Gary Perisian, the community’s president.
She was prone to calling people “love” and giving hugs on first encounters, Perisian said Monday. She looked forward to her August wedding to Damond, who is vice president and general manager of Little Six Casino in Prior Lake, according to his LinkedIn account.
“She was the least threatening person you would meet,” Perisian said. “Justine is not the face we’re used to seeing on police shootings.”
Before coming to the United States, Damond shared tidbits of insight in book reviews for a local newspaper in Australia, where her critiques ranged from vegetarian cookbooks to children’s stories.
Manly Daily news reporter Rod Bennett worked with Damond in those days, where they became friends. Bennett described her in an e-mail as a “vibrant woman with an offbeat sense of humor.”
In a statement cited in Australian media, Damond’s family called the aftermath of the shooting “a very difficult time.”
“We are trying to come to terms with this tragedy and to understand why this has happened,” they said.
Rob Valentine, who used to see her at Dunn Brothers Coffee in Minneapolis, recalled her “sympathetic kindness.”
“She’s a very bright light,” Valentine said. “Wherever there was pain, she would show up.”
Neighbors remembered her love for animals, especially ones in peril. They said she once rescued a few dogs from euthanasia — in Egypt. She flew the pups stateside to find them homes.
A theme of her life, some say, was rescue.
Ducklings in distress once made her late to a meditation class. They had fallen down a storm drain, so Damond climbed down, scooped them up in her dress and returned them to their mother, said Jay Peterson of the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community. He suspects that Damond made the 911 call Saturday night in effort to save someone, he added.
He said people can honor Damond by focusing on unity and working to transform community-police relationships.
“There would be no anger,” he said. “Nothing but compassion.”
Staff writer Sarah Jarvis contributed to this report.