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Australians, bride-to-be's dad rocked by Minneapolis police shooting

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/19/2017 John Bacon
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Australians expressed dismay and a father pleaded for "the light of justice" Tuesday as investigators in Minneapolis tried to determine why a city police officer fatally shot an Australian woman who called 911 to report a possible sexual assault.

Justine Damond, 40, was a meditation instructor who moved to the U.S. in 2015 to be with fiance Don Damond. She was shot just before midnight Saturday in an alley outside her home, unarmed and in her pajamas.

“We thought yesterday was our worst nightmare, but we awoke to the ugly truth and it hurt even more,” her father, John Ruszczyk said Tuesday local time in Sydney. “Justine was a beacon to all of us. We only ask that the light of justice shine down on the circumstances of her death.”

Damond was approaching two officers in their patrol car when officer Mohamed Noor, a two-year veteran of the force, reportedly shot her from the passenger seat. He and his partner, who has not been identified, have been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Police have been tight-lipped about the details of the shooting, citing the investigation. On Monday, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office revealed Damond died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen and ruled the death a homicide, a finding that does not necessarily mean charges will be filed in the case.

This undated photo provided by Stephen Govel shows Justine Damond, of Sydney, Australia, who was fatally shot by by police in Minneapolis on Saturday, July 15, 2017. © Stephen Govel, AP This undated photo provided by Stephen Govel shows Justine Damond, of Sydney, Australia, who was fatally shot by by police in Minneapolis on Saturday, July 15, 2017.

Australians struggled to make sense of the killing.

American Nightmare blared a headline in The Daily Telegraph of Sydney. The Courier Mail chimed in with Shot dead in her pyjamas, Why on earth did U.S. cops kill Aussie who called for help.

Police in Australia generally carry guns, but gun violence is rare and the overall homicide rate is a fraction of the U.S. rate. Australia instituted tight gun control laws following a 1996 shooting rampage in Tasmania, when Martin Bryant, 28, shot and killed 35 people in a cafe.

The Australian government’s official travel advice for its citizens notes the U.S. has a higher level of violent crime than Australia.

"Be vigilant about the possibility of gun crime in all parts of the United States," the advisory warns. But the fact that a police officer shot Damond — and that the officers involved did not have their body cameras turned on — added to the sense of confusion.

"Everyone is in shock, just in shock," Kat Kinnie, an Australian friend of Damond's told CNN. "She was such a beautiful life on this planet, and she was spreading so much love."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said both officers at the scene of Damond's death should have switched on their cameras when she approached them in the alley. Freeman said he will review the findings of state investigators to determine whether either officer should be charged.

Police Chief Janee Harteau called the killing a “tragic death” and expressed empathy for those demanding answers. He said he has asked the state expedited its investigation.

Noor, the officer who shot Damond, drew accolades as one of the city's first Somali officers. Last year, Mayor Betsy Hodges called his assignment a "wonderful sign of building trust and community policing at work."

Noor issued a statement through lawyer Tom Plunkett extending condolences to Damond's family and loved ones.

"He takes their loss seriously and keeps them in his daily thoughts and prayers," the statement said. “Officer Noor is a caring person with a family he loves, and he empathizes with the loss others are experiencing."

Plunkett said Noor came to the United States at a young age and considers being a police officer a calling. He joined the force "to serve the community and to protect the people he serves," the statement says.

Don Damond said his fiance had called 911 to report what she believed was an active sexual assault occurring nearby. He said the family has received few other details.

"We lost the dearest of people and we are desperate for information," he said.

Contributing: Kent Erdahl, KARE-TV, Minneapolis-St. Paul; Associated Press

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