Stabbing suspect has extensive record, troubled background

The man accused of killing a Pittsburgh police dog comes from a chaotic background that includes a criminal record, history of mental illness and lack of family support.

John Lewis Rush, 21, served a year in the Allegheny County Jail for statutory sexual assault and is now back there on a $1 million bond set Friday stemming from the assault Tuesday of Rocco, a K-9 officer, who police say he stabbed during a confrontation in Lawrenceville.

A preliminary hearing on charges -- including disarming a law enforcement officer; aggravated assault; burglary; resisting arrest; cruelty to animals and possessing instruments of crime -- is scheduled for Feb. 12.

On Friday, details began to emerge about Rush, who quickly became a target of public outrage. His own Facebook page included dozens of comments castigating him for the stabbing, and another page, Justice for Rocco, which was created Thursday afternoon, already had more than 53,000 likes.

Rush's former girlfriend, who asked that her name be withheld, has remained friends with him. She has heard from many people over the last few days about his actions and is unsure how to respond.

"He was never aggressive with me -- ever," she said.

But court records show Rush has a violent background, having been arrested for aggravated and simple assault, reckless endangerment and terroristic threats, as well as indecent assault of a child under 13 years old.

Most recently he was charged with assaulting one former girlfriend and attacking another man who he claimed owed him $20.

On Jan. 28, 2013, Rush pleaded guilty to statutory sexual assault, corruption of minors, indecent exposure and simple assault. According to the criminal complaint in the case, Sharpsburg police responded to a call of a 14-year-old girl having been badly beaten by her 19-year-old boyfriend on March 10, 2012.

The girl told police she met Rush in August 2011 and they began a sexual relationship two months later.

Although he was initially charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, those charges were withdrawn by the district attorney's office.

"Through the course of that investigation, evidentiary issues came up that resulted in our office having to offer the plea that we did," said spokesman Mike Manko.

Judge Jill E. Rangos sentenced Rush to 1 to 2 years at the Allegheny County Jail, to be followed by three years of probation.

He received credit for time served of 321 days because he had been unable to make the $50,000 bond on the case, and Rush was ultimately released on Feb. 21, 2013.

As part of his plea agreement, Rush was required to register as a sex offender for 15 years. As a Tier 1 offender, he was required to report, in person, once a year.

But he failed to register, and on Jan. 8, Judge Rangos issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

It was the second bench warrant issued for him in a month, stemming from a violent home invasion at his father's house in Lawrenceville on Dec. 7.

Those warrants led to his most recent arrest.

According to the criminal complaint, members of the Allegheny County sheriff's office spotted Rush 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 away.

About 40 minutes later, Officer Philip Lerza and Rocco responded to a call for a suspicious man in the basement of a home in the 3700 block of Butler Street.

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.

Rocco was rushed to Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township where he underwent surgery and received blood transfusions. He died Thursday evening after developing pneumonia and additional bleeding.

The charges against Rush cannot be upgraded under the current state of the law, Mr. Manko said.

Rush's former girlfriend and his half-brother, Sam, said he came from a difficult background.

He spent much of his life in Lawrenceville but rarely had a permanent place to live.

Court records listed a number of different addresses, and his former girlfriend said he moved often from place to place, sometimes staying with relatives, girlfriends or friends.

"He kind of just lived off of everybody," she said.

Rush was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia in his adolescence, his former girlfriend said, and he spent extensive time in a number of juvenile facilities.

Sam, who shares a mother with Rush and asked that his last name not be used, said he remembers visiting his half-brother during one of his placements about four years ago.

"He had really started turning his life around. Participating in the jail academic program was showing good promise for him," Sam said. "I remember one conversation in particular about him talking about how he feared himself and the things he'd done. And how he didn't want to hurt people anymore and just wanted to be accepted into normal social life."

When Rush got out, he got a full-time job at the Silk Elephant in Squirrel Hill, Sam said, and it seemed like he'd gotten his life on track. He left for a new job, but the position fell through, and when Rush went back to the restaurant, he'd already been replaced.

Sam said his brother "fell off the grid" at that point, "calling every now and then telling me to cherish everything I have because some people don't have it as well and that he cared about me."

Rush enrolled at Community College of Allegheny County, his brother said, but his loans fell through, and he quit.

"When he grew up, his life was so bad," his former girlfriend said.

Rush's family members were not there to support him, and they did not encourage him to stay on his medication.

"His moods, oh my God, you could see him changing," she said. "Something wasn't going right in his head."

When Rush was off his medication, his friend said, he became irritable and paranoid. He began to believe that everyone hated him and he threatened suicide.

Although she could not specify when, Rush's former girlfriend said he spent time at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic on more than one occasion. "My wonder is, why didn't anyone see this coming?"

According to a recommendation sheet included in Rush's criminal court case file from March 2012, the behavior clinic at the jail cleared him but suggested he undergo outpatient anger-management classes, as well as take psychiatric medications.

The form does not include any specific diagnosis.

Although his former girlfriend does not believe Rush set out Tuesday night to hurt anyone, "John deserves to pay for everything he did to that dog and those police officers," she said.

But, she continued, "he needs help."

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. Liz Navratil contributed.

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