OAKLAND, Pa. — Officer Philip Lerza traveled to the Pittsburgh police bureau’s canine training academy countless times in the four years since he began working with German shepherd Rocco, but none compared to Friday.
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The 12-year veteran of the force, along with his wife and two daughters, got into the back of a police van. Dozens of officers from throughout the state escorted them to Oakland, Pa., for the dog’s funeral, which drew an estimated 1,200 people.
When they arrived, officers and their canine partners lined the walkway and saluted. The bagpipes began playing. The dogs began barking.
The bagpiper led the way inside, followed by officers holding Rocco’s photo, his urn, and a flag. Next was Officer Lerza, his wife, Jaime, and their daughters Domenica, 10, and Maura, 6.
“It just brought us to tears,” said Joy Gezo, Officer Lerza’s aunt, who also attended. “It was a tough day, but at the same time we still couldn’t believe the amount of people that came and that participated.”
Rocco died last week after he was stabbed while trying to apprehend a fugitive. He received full police honors in a ceremony that some police said was meant to show that sometimes an officer’s best partner is “just a dog.”
Among those in attendance was Sarah Deitschel, a veterinarian at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township, Pa. When Dr. Deitschel arrived at the clinic the morning of Jan. 29, Rocco had already undergone two surgeries — one to remove a kidney and a second to attempt to correct hemorrhaging that doctors detected on an ultrasound.
The 8-year-old German shepherd showed signs of improvement. For a brief period, officers thought Rocco, known to many on the force, would survive.
Officers came to know the dog for his distinctive, high-pitched bark, said Officer Daniel Paga in a tribute read during the 45-minute service.
The dog and his handler routinely scoped out crime scenes where police thought they might find explosives or discarded guns, 18 of which Rocco recovered throughout his career. Fellow officers often knew before they saw him that Rocco and Officer Lerza had been dispatched to a scene.
“His bark was so high-pitched ... you knew it was Rocco and Phil coming,” Officer Paga said.
The pair had been together since April, 2010, when Officer Lerza picked Rocco out of a crop of five police dogs that joined the force, Officer Paga said. Rocco came to Pittsburgh from the Czech Republic via an importer in Alabama.
On Jan. 28, Officer Lerza sent Rocco into the basement of a building on Butler Street, and police said 21-year-old John Rush, a homeless man formerly of McKees Rocks, Pa., began swinging at the dog. A scuffle ensued.
Officer Lerza received stitches for puncture wounds in the shoulder. Officer Robert Scott suffered a knee injury that police suspect will require surgery. Another officer was treated for a hand injury. When the melee was over, they realized Rocco had been stabbed.
At the ceremony, Officer Jeffrey Deschon said he was grateful to Rocco for taking the fatal blows.
“I thank Rocco for giving Phil that opportunity to take control of the situation ... there is a possibility that maybe Phil would not be here.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Liz Navratil is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact her at: email@example.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.