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Published: 1/31/2014

Pittsburgh mourns loss of Rocco, K-9 died after defending partner

Flags ordered at half-staff in city by mayor

BY LEXI BELCULFINE AND LIZ NAVRATIL
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
K-9 Officer Phil Lerza, left, joined by fellow K-9 Officer Tim Crane, far right, held a vigil for Rocco as he was taken from a  Pittsburgh veterinary center. K-9 Officer Phil Lerza, left, joined by fellow K-9 Officer Tim Crane, far right, held a vigil for Rocco as he was taken from a Pittsburgh veterinary center.
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE /BILL WADE Enlarge

PITTSBURGH — Officer Phil Lerza sobbed.

He exited the glass double doors and walked away from the building.

Inside, his fellow Pittsburgh police officers lined the hallways of the veterinarian office, some donning their uniforms, others sporting green canine unit sweatshirts, like Officer Lerza.

They’d just lost one of their own. Officer Lerza had lost his partner.

Canine Rocco died at 6:17 p.m. Thursday “after a good fight,” Zone 2 Cmdr. Eric Holmes said. The 8-year-old German shepherd was stabbed Tuesday night while helping police apprehend a suspect.

“Officer Lerza lost a member of his family,” the commander said.

RELATED VIDEO: Click here to view a video dedicated to Rocco

Rocco had served on the police force with Pittsburgh K-9 Officer Phil Lerza since 2010. Rocco had served on the police force with Pittsburgh K-9 Officer Phil Lerza since 2010.
Enlarge

Hopes for Rocco’s recovery had grown Thursday.

About 8:30 a.m., police spokesman Diane Richard said Rocco was resting while his blood count improved. Four hours later, she said he’d been upgraded from critical to serious condition. He had begun resting on his sternum rather than on his side, she said.

Often wiping tears from her eyes, staff surgeon Julie Compton said Thursday night that Rocco remained in the intensive care unit all day, but was upgraded from a table to a dog run, a cage, or kennel where he could get up.

As the day wore on, word began to circulate that Rocco had taken a turn for the worse. By early evening, dozens of Pittsburgh police officers — and their canines — arrived at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center to pay their respects to Rocco.

Ms. Compton said Rocco suffered from additional bleeding and had developed pneumonia. The dog died from his injuries and was not euthanized.

“He fought as hard here as he did out on the field,” she said.

Ms. Richards said Rocco would be laid to rest with honors.

“This is a police officer, it just happens to be a canine,” she said.

Around 7 p.m., officers, canine handlers, and their four-legged partners lined the sidewalk outside the vet center. A retired canine officer played bagpipes as police assisted a gurney with Rocco’s casket, draped with an American flag, from the clinic. Officers in uniform presented arms.

Then, a procession of dozens of K-9 units, cruisers, and motorcycles with flashing lights left the veterinarian center, headed downtown, and then to a pet crematory in the Pittsburgh suburb of West View.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto ordered city building flags to be lowered to half-staff today in honor of Rocco. Mr. Peduto said he met with Officer Lerza, who had been Rocco’s partner since 2010, and his wife Thursday evening.

Rocco “died saving one of his fellow officers,” the mayor said.

Police said Rocco, who joined the force in 2008, suffered from a 3-inch-deep stab wound that lacerated muscle and his kidney, causing major blood loss.

While officers awaited word on Rocco’s condition, homicide detectives obtained a warrant charging the man accused of stabbing the dog and wounding several officers.

John Rush, 21, who previously lived in McKees Rocks, Pa., but had recently been homeless, faces felony charges of abusing a police animal, disarming a law enforcement officer, aggravated assault, burglary, and also misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, resisting arrest, and possessing instruments of a crime.

He was being held without bond.

Members of the Allegheny County sheriff’s office were searching for Rush, a convicted sex offender, on a bench warrant signed earlier this month when they saw him on Tuesday night.

Deputy John Herb asked Rush for his name and identification and Rush lunged toward the deputy’s gun then began hitting him in the face, according to the complaint.

The deputy tried to stop him by using a Taser, but Rush ran into a nearby home, police said.

Rocco and Officer Lerza were among those who responded to a call for a suspicious man.

Officer Lerza stood by the doorway of the basement and shouted three times, “Pittsburgh Police K-9,” and warned the man to “sound off” or the dog would come for him, police wrote.

Police said Rush “lunged out from near a pillar and attacked K-9 Rocco,” swinging the knife while the dog attempted to bite his upper torso and arm.

Rush, police said, punched Officer Daniel Nowak, who told him he was under arrest, and hit Officer John Baker in the head several times.

Officer Lerza suffered a puncture wound to the back at some point in the scuffle and was treated at UPMC Mercy. A fourth officer suffered a knee injury.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lexi Belculfine and Liz Navratil are reporters for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Lexi Belculfine at: lbelculfine@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.



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