Justine Damond Ruszczyk: Why was she shot dead?

Justine Damond Ruszczyk: Why was she shot dead?

Justine Damond Ruszczyk: Why was she shot dead?

Updated 20 November 2017, 13:40 AEDT

Unarmed, wearing her pyjamas and just trying to help, Justine Damond Ruszczyk was shot dead by a police officer outside her home in Minneapolis.

Unarmed, wearing her pyjamas and just trying to help, Justine Damond Ruszczyk was shot dead by a police officer outside her home in Minneapolis. Four months on, her loved ones open up for the first time to Australian Story about their determination to seek justice for Justine.

Why?

Why did the police officer pull the trigger?

Why would you shoot an unarmed woman who called 911 for help?

These are the questions that haunt friends and family of Justine Damond Ruszczyk four months after her death.

The former Sydneysider was shot dead by Minneapolis policeman Mohamed Noor in July.

Her family is still waiting to hear whether criminal charges will be laid over the 40-year-old's death and is hoping for an announcement by the end of the year.

"The waiting is awful," Justine's brother, Jason said.

"I wake up every morning and think about Juzzy and how it happened and I don't understand why. We really need some answers soon."

Her father John Ruszczyk struggles with how the innocent act of dialing 911 for help could lead to such a terrible outcome.

"She did what any Aussie woman would do — go to the police because you know it's safe and they're going to get to the bottom of it. In this case, it was the wrong decision," he said.

Minneapolis lawyer Robert Bennett, who is acting for the family in a separate civil case, said a decision about criminal charges was unlikely to be rushed by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

"I've been assured that they're working very hard to meet an end of year deadline but it's important that the investigation be done completely and comprehensively and not with regard to any artificial deadlines," he said.

But history shows securing a conviction will be extremely difficult.

Since 2000, 162 people have died in encounters with the Minnesota police. Most were shot. But charges have only ever been laid against one Minnesota police officer and he was never convicted of the shooting.

The Rusczcyk family hope that the circumstances of Justine's death, and the fact that there was no criminal apprehension involved, might lead to long-term changes in Minnesota policing practice.

"We hope that Justine's case could really be a test case," said her sister-in-law Katarina Ruszczyk.

"This is highlighting a massive issue. Where's the accountability for these officers?

"We want justice for the family so we need the truth to come out. We want to know the reason why she was shot. Why is she dead?"

A peaceful life

Justine Damond Ruszczyk was born in Iran in 1977 to John, an American English teacher, and Margaret, an Australian nurse.

After the Iranian revolution the family eventually settled back in Sydney's Northern Beaches area, where Margaret had grown up.

John was uncomfortable with the violence and discrimination he had witnessed in America and embraced their new life in Australia.

"I was looking for a different kind of social environment and Australia appealed to me," he said.

A love of animals as a child led Justine to study veterinary science and she graduated with honours. But the emotional toll of her mother's death from cancer drew her towards other interests.

She moved away from a vet career and embarked on a spiritual quest, travelling extensively throughout Europe and Asia.

She became fascinated by how much control the mind could have on the body's health and the neuroscience research behind the practice of meditation.

"She wanted to save everyone from pain and hurt. She wanted to save animals, she wanted to save people, I think she probably wanted to save her mother," her stepmother Maryan Heffernan said.

"I think that's one of the things that was deeply passionate about her."

"I never reached an end where I was totally satisfied that I understood what she was looking for but it was certainly a life-long quest on her part," John said.

A long distance love story

In 2012, Justine met Don Damond at a meditation retreat in Colorado Springs. He was American and 12 years her senior.

"The connection that I felt was beyond anything I've ever experienced," Don said.

"I came home and I told all my friends and my family that I just met my future wife. They said, 'Great, when can we meet her?' I said, 'Well, she lives 9,000 miles away'."

It was a slow burn for Justine and it took more than a year for her to commit. She was running a life coaching business in Sydney and a potential US relationship was a challenging prospect.

Don's strategy was to hire her long distance to be his life coach.

"I had complete ulterior motives," he said. "It was a way in which to be in conversation."

They communicated via Skype and over time their conversations changed.

"Don told me they actually once went out on a Skype date," Justine's father John said. "Justine went to a restaurant in Manly and he went to a restaurant in Minneapolis and they had their laptops there and they engaged in date chatter."

Eventually the pair agreed to meet in Hawaii and plan a future together.

Justine was keen for him to move to Sydney but Don's son Zach was at college in Minneapolis so the decision was made to live there, at least in the short term.

'She felt like another mum to me'

Justine settled into life in Minneapolis quickly.

Her long-time friend Jen Hearn said Justine felt at home in a community of like-minded people.

Signs saying 'Black Lives Matter', 'All Welcome Here' and 'Kindness is Everything' dot the manicured lawns and flower beds of the tree-lined street where Justine lived in South Minneapolis.

"We got close very quickly and she felt like another mum to me," stepson Zach said.

"It was just two guys living here together and she came in and just made it a home and little Juzzy things showed up everywhere like gnomes and fairies and stuffed animals and her art or pieces of Australia."

Inside a former church across the beautiful lake near her house, Justine discovered the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community centre and an audience eager to hear her blend of meditation and neuroscience teachings.

"She quickly found a home there," said Don. "Found a voice, a place for her voice to be heard."

What happened the night Justine died?

Justine was home alone on the hot summer's night she died, working at her desk in a corner of the lounge room surrounded by books and photographs from home.

Her wedding in Hawaii was just weeks away and she was juggling last minute preparations. Don was interstate on a work trip and his son Zach was also away.

She had texted close friend Jen Hearn that day in Sydney to discuss her indecision in choosing the right bridesmaid's dresses.

"In true Justine form, she'd just decided to order 10 different ones for two bridesmaids to arrive at her house about the same day as the 15th of July," Jen said

It was after 11 on a sweltering evening when Justine heard what she thought sounded like a sexual assault in the laneway behind her house.

Worried, she phoned Don in Las Vegas. The couple agreed Justine should call 911.

"I'm not sure if she's having sex or being raped," she told the 911 operator, "But I don't think she's enjoying it."

The noises continued and when there was no sign of a police car by 11:35pm, she called again.

When the squad car arrived and drove down the laneway, she took the fateful decision to leave the house and approach the officers inside the car.

"I can only suppose that she came out of the house and realising that the police car had gone past the site of the incident, that she walked up to the police car," John said.

"And for some unknown reason, a man shot and killed her."

For Don Damond, waiting to hear back from her in a Las Vegas hotel room, the news when it arrived was incomprehensible.

"When she said, 'The police are here', I felt like all is well, like the knights in shining armour have arrived," he said. "I'll never feel that way again."

Civil action against the police

In the aftermath of Justine's death, her family engaged prominent Minneapolis lawyer Robert Bennett to run a civil case next year.

Bennett has a long and successful history winning civil suits for victims of police violence in Minnesota, including acting for the family of Philando Castile, who was shot by policeman Jeronimo Yanez in 2016.

He settled the case for the limits of insurance at the time.

"I think it was $2.995 million out of $3 million in coverage," he said.

Yanez was the first policeman to be criminally charged in relation to a shooting death in Minnesota. He was acquitted the month before Justine died.

"We realised there was a possibility we'd be unhappy with the way the police force investigated it," John said.

"Someone took my daughter's life for no reason and I think that's a crime and I'd like to see him in court."

The family's case will be brought under section 183 of the US Civil Rights Act, claiming that police officer Mohamed Noor used excessive force that resulted in the wrongful loss of Justine's life.

For the Ruszczyk family, it offers the chance to shine a spotlight on the issue of excessive force in America and to work towards systemic changes in police training.

It's an issue close to the collective heart of the neighbours in Justine's community, who have come together to lobby for change.

"We are determined to make sure Justine's death is not in vain," sister-in-law Katarina Rusczcyk said.

"We are in it for the long haul."

'If she can be shot, anybody can be shot'

Robert Bennett described Justine's case as the worst example of excessive force he'd ever seen.

"It's a use of force so beyond the pale that it would cause other people not to call the police," he said.

"That's what outlines this as something unique.

"There's no excuse for it. If she can be shot, anybody can be shot. Any 911 caller, any mother in her pyjamas, anybody can be shot."

Mr Bennett believes there are longstanding issues with the use of force by Minnesota police and that part of the reason relates to changed training techniques in the aftermath of 9/11.

"In this post-9/11 world areas of police training, especially with regard to shoot/no shoot and trigger engagement decisions, have gotten a lot more militaristic, have gotten a lot more 'us versus them'," he said.

Mr Bennett said in Justine's case there was no need to get a firearm out in her presence, or to pull the trigger.

"You can't just say it's an accident. I can't imagine that they teach officers that one of the good lanes of fire is across the lap of their driving partner. I mean, it's just crazy," he said.

"In Minnesota we've never convicted an officer for any form of homicide or manslaughter in connection with an officer-involved shooting, or other killing of the suspect.

"I would charge someone in Justine's case."

The Minnesota Police Department declined to comment on Justine Ruszczyk Damond's case, saying it remained "an open case".

Hope for systemic change in policing

Don Damond is finding solace in the meditation practice he shared with Justine as he faces a future vastly different to the one he envisaged four months ago.

The seasons have turned and the streets are covered in golden leaves. Summer is long gone.

Prayer flags inscribed with messages to Justine fade in the backyard and Buddhas and fairy houses hide amongst the overgrown bushes.

Don wants justice for his slain partner but he also wants systemic change in the policing system.

"I'm able to self-manage my emotions and step back," he said

"For somebody who has a gun, we should expect them to have that ability. It can bring an element of compassion and sanctity of life to a situation."

On Saturday mornings, in a break from his weekday management job, Don has returned to teaching teenagers in a juvenile detention centre how to meditate. He says it helps them manage their stress and anxiety.

The work is important to him and Justine encouraged him to do it.

"If it wasn't for people helping me when I was younger I wouldn't be where I am today," he said.

"I want to give back.

"I can't just believe that it's a random event, where she walked out there and gets shot and it's game over.

"We turn to faith, we turn to those places where we look for an answer. That's what I've had to do with this."

Australian Story's Without Rhyme or Reason airs 8:00pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

Credits:

Reporting: Rebecca Latham

Additional reporting: Greg Hassall

Photography: Greg Nelson, Mayeta Clark