Pittsburgh police dog Rocco remembered as a hero

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 veterinary office, some in their uniforms, others sporting green canine unit sweatshirts, as he was.

They had just lost one of their own -- and Officer Lerza had lost his partner.

Canine Rocco died at 6:17 p.m. Thursday at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township "after a good fight," Zone 2 Cmdr. Eric Holmes said. The 8-year-old German shepherd was stabbed Tuesday night while apprehending a suspect.

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

Hopes for Rocco's recovery had grown Thursday.

About 8:30 a.m., police spokeswoman Diane Richard said Rocco was resting while his blood count improved. Four hours later, she said he had 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.

But as the day wore on, word began to circulate that Rocco's condition had deteriorated. 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 succumbed to his injuries and was not euthanized.

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

Ms. Richard 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 cold sidewalk outside the vet center.

A retired canine officer played bagpipes, as police assisted a gurney, draped with an American flag, from the clinic. Officers 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 Oak Crest Pet Crematory, on Cemetery Lane in Ross.

Rocco's body will remain at Oak Crest while arrangements are made for a ceremony, staff there said.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who later ordered city building flags to be lowered to half-staff today in honor of Rocco, 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 but had recently been homeless, faces felony charges of abusing a police animal, disarming a law enforcement officer, aggravated assault, burglary and misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, resisting arrest and possessing instruments of a crime. He was being held without bond in the Allegheny County Jail.

The felony three charge of abuse of a police animal stood whether or not Rocco died, District attorney's office spokesman Mike Manko said.

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 spotted him carrying several bags while walking Tuesday night on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. 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, the complaint says.

The deputy tried to stop him by using a Taser, but Rush ran into the basement of a home in the 3700 block of Butler Street, 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 about 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 sustained a puncture wound to the back and was treated at UPMC Mercy. A fourth officer sustained a knee injury.

Court documents did not indicate whether Rush had an attorney who could comment on a possible defense in charges related to Rocco's death. But in similar cases throughout the country, suspects sometimes claim self defense to explain why they killed or injured police dogs.

The Pittsburgh police K-9 unit includes 21 dogs, in addition to Rocco. Police praised K-9 instructor Dan Tice's commitment.

"Officer Tice has done a tremendous job through this whole process. He has been here night and day, hardly any sleep at all," Ms. Richard said at the vet center Thursday night. He and Officer Lerza declined comment.

"We need our officers, especially our canine officers, to go through their grieving process," she said.

Pittsburgh has protective vests for its police dogs, but they are not used in every situation, officers said earlier this week.

Representatives from the Humane Society's Pennsylvania office and for a national police canine group said they encourage officers to put protective vests on their dogs when possible but recognize that might not always be practical.

Unlike humans, the dogs cannot quickly don them or wear them for prolonged periods because in warm climates the dogs could overheat, said Russ Hess, national executive director of the United States Police Canine Association. Additionally, he said, a dog needs to be trained to grow accustomed to the vest or it will try to remove it, like a puppy trying to pull off a collar.

If police have properly trained a dog and have ample time to prepare before a call, it might make sense to equip a dog with a vest, Mr. Hess said. But, he added, "In the fast line of police work, sometimes that option's not available."

Mr. Peduto said Thursday night he talked with canine handlers to determine if they needed additional protection, though he said they did not feel that they do.

As the story of Rocco's struggle unfolded Thursday, scores of people expressed their feelings on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's website.

Wrote one man, "It is a sad and painful day for those of us with feeling for animals and those that love them. I am crushed to hear the sad news. God bless his handler and his family and all who cared for this precious and unique boy. They shall be in the thoughts of caring people in the days to come. We are newly reminded of the danger that our human and K-9 officers face, that their lives are on the line every day as they deal with the criminal element."

A woman wrote, "My thoughts and prayers go out to Rocco's handler, family, friends and the entire City Of Pittsburgh Police Department for the loss of fallen Officer K-9 Rocco in the line of duty.

"RIP, Beautiful Boy. Heaven has another Angel."

Lexi Belculfine: lbelculfine@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published January 30, 2014 9:52 AM

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