Separated by work obligations, Justine Ruszczyk Damond and her fiancé traded text messages and phone calls regarding her concerns about a possible sexual assault behind their Minneapolis home, until she went eerily silent.
Don Damond testified in court Tuesday, recalling how a chance 2012 meeting with his “true love” at a meditation retreat in Colorado turned into a two-year courtship and proposal. Overwhelmed by tears at times, Damond recalled in a trembling voice the night in 2017 when Justine was fatally shot while trying to help someone she believed was in distress.
Justine stopped answering her phone after telling Don Damond that the police had arrived in response to her 911 call about the possible assault.
“Hello?” Don Damond texted her about 2:26 a.m. Minnesota time in one last effort to reach her. He was in Las Vegas for his work as a vice president and general manager of an entertainment company that manages two Minnesota casinos.
The next phone call he received was from a Minneapolis police officer, though spotty cellphone reception repeatedly interrupted the call.
“He said, ‘Well, there’s been a shooting and we believe Justine is deceased as a result of that shooting,’ ” Damond said after removing his glasses and taking a deep breath. “And I, I, um, I, I was like — I couldn’t believe it. What do you mean shooting?”
Don Damond said he was given scant information before the officer ended the call.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy asked if the officer had informed him that another Minneapolis officer had fired the fatal shot.
“No, no, no,” Damond said.
He tried calling Justine one more time at 3:22 a.m. Minnesota time, hoping it was all a mix-up.
“I couldn’t believe it, so I called … thinking again there has to be a mistake here,” he said.
Damond was the first witness called in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, charged with killing Justine about 11:40 p.m. on July 15, 2017.
He testified for three hours until court recessed at 4:30 p.m.
Justine’s father, John Ruszczyk, who sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery with his son and two other family members, pressed one hand to his face and sobbed softly throughout the testimony.
Frantic after the officer’s call, Don Damond packed his bags and was at the Las Vegas airport waiting for the next flight out when a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) special agent called and delivered more news: Justine had been shot by a police officer.
“I was in shock,” he said. “I was just shaking and I just said, ‘Please, treat her body with dignity.’ ”
Damond previously testified that he had suggested that Justine call police, whom he had viewed as “the right people” to handle her alarm about a possible assault.
“All will be well,” he had thought to himself after she called 911.
It wasn’t until a BCA investigator stopped by a month after the shooting to drop off Justine’s wedding ring that the finality of her death hit him.
“I held out just a small bit of hope that it would be the wrong ring,” he said, “that it would all be a mistake.”
Sweasy later walked Damond through several pictures taken by the BCA of their south Minneapolis home. One picture showed a glass door with its bottom half covered in masking tape.
Damond smiled in recalling how Justine, a former veterinary surgeon in her native Australia, had taped the door in 2016 to create a visual barrier so a rescue dog would stop crashing headlong into it.
Justine had heard from friends that a woman in Egypt could no longer care for three of her dogs, he testified.
She rented a van, drove it down to Chicago, where the dogs had been flown, and drove them back to Minneapolis, where she cared for them until she could find them new homes.
An Egyptian hound that was part of the group repeatedly ran into the glass. The animal despised everyone but Justine, he said, eliciting a smile from one juror.
He testified that he eventually sold the house because the memories were too painful.
Defense attorney Peter Wold’s brief cross-examination of Damond focused on vantage points of the alley from inside the house, and the length of time it took to walk from the home to the end of the alley where Justine was shot.
Tuesday morning started with opening statements from the prosecution and defense, with the two sides telling the jury of 12 men and four women widely different stories about what happened that night.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton said Noor acted rashly in firing his weapon at an unarmed, barefoot civilian clad in pajamas.
The defense contended that the officer’s fear of an ambush in a dark alley led to “a perfect storm with tragic consequences.”
Lofton described what he termed as missteps in the early handling of the case, saying that at several points BCA agents failed to test for gunshot residue inside the police SUV or to interview witnesses, including a teenage bicyclist who recorded the shooting’s aftermath on his cellphone. That cellphone footage, Lofton said, showed that neither Noor nor his partner, Matthew Harrity, handcuffed Damond, nor did they look for a weapon, which is standard procedure in most police shootings involving people who are considered a threat.
The teenage witness, who told investigators that the officers were outside of their vehicle when the shot was fired, is expected to testify, although Lofton told jurors he was not reliable because had been drinking alcohol.
Harrity has told investigators that Noor fired his gun from the squad’s front passenger seat through Harrity’s open window.
Lofton told jurors that the distance between Harrity’s open window and the ground was 3 feet, 7 inches, while the gunshot wound in Damond’s lower left abdomen was 3 feet, 4 inches from the bottom of her heel.
A longstanding account that Damond may have startled the officers by slapping the SUV apparently originated with a BCA agent who spoke to Noor’s and Harrity’s supervisor at the shooting scene, Lofton said. The supervisor told the agent that whatever spooked the officers must have come in contact with the car, prompting the agent to suggest that it was a slap, the prosecutor said.
“There is no forensic evidence that Ms. Ruszczyk ever touched the car,” Lofton told jurors.
The first time Harrity mentioned hearing a noise on the squad car was three days afterward when the same BCA agent interviewed him at his attorney’s home, Lofton said.
The supervisor’s body camera recorded Harrity telling her, “[Damond] just came up out of nowhere on the side of us and we both got spooked,” Lofton said, adding that he did not mention a noise at that point.
During his opening statements, Wold focused heavily on Noor’s background as a Somali immigrant and the fear of “ambush” attacks on police, saying that his client’s actions were justified despite the fact that Damond was not a threat.
“That fear was not an unjustified paranoia,” Wold said of a possible ambush.
Wold said Noor and Harrity responded to Damond’s call but were not given any information about who had placed the call, or told that the caller wanted to be notified by officers when they arrived at the scene.
They “crept” down the alley with their headlights off and Harrity shining a spotlight in the alley.
“No signs of anything there,” Wold said. “Nothing. Not a homeowner … not a victim waving for help … not a sound at all. Nothing.”
The officers traveled to the end of the alley and parked to clear the call. They planned to leave the scene and respond to a “priority one” call, but the boy on the bike passed in front of their squad, forcing them to wait.
Wold contended that the officers did then hear a “bang” on the back of their vehicle. Wold reenacted the moment by slamming his fist loudly on the defense attorney’s table.
Harrity looked back from his place in the driver’s seat and jumped. “Oh Jesus!” Harrity yelled, Wold recounted.
Harrity grabbed for his gun, Wold said. Noor had an obstructed view from the passenger’s seat because of a screen in the squad car.
“That’s what Mo Noor sees in those split seconds,” Wold said, using a nickname for Noor. “Harrity appeared to be in terror.”
Noor then saw a figure in Harrity’s window raising a right arm, Wold said. Thinking the two were in “apparent and imminent danger,” Noor fired his weapon.
“It was a perfect storm with tragic consequences,” Wold said. “It was a classic ambush scenario …”
Noor has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. His trial is expected to last three to four weeks. It began April 1 with jury selection.
Defense attorneys have not said whether Noor will testify on his own behalf.
Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett also said the defense is researching a possible motion that would request that some audio from body camera video be excluded from the jury because it could become “prejudicial.”
He did not elaborate on what the audio revealed or whose body camera it came from. Sweasy said that there was “absolutely no way” to redact audio at this point without stopping the trial.
Judge Kathryn Quaintance said the timing of any such motion could affect her ruling.