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.
The 12-year veteran of the force, his wife and two daughters got into the back of a police van. Dozens of officers from throughout the state escorted them to Oakland for the dog's funeral, which drew an estimated 1,200 people at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.
When they arrived, officers and their canine partners lined the walkway and saluted. The bagpipes began playing. The dogs began barking.
Police dog Rocco remembered by officers, citizens
In a ceremony befitting an officer of the law, slain police dog Rocco was remembered in a solemn ceremony today by officers and citizens alike. (Video by Doug Oster; 2/7/2014)
The bagpiper led the way inside, followed by officers holding Rocco's photo and urn and a flag. Then came 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 in Lawrenceville. 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 of Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township. 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 correct hemorrhaging that doctors detected on an ultrasound.
The 8-year-old German shepherd showed signs of improvement, lifting his head and looking around. For a brief period, officers thought Rocco 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 in his career. Fellow officers frequently 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," said Officer Paga.
The pair had been together since April 2010, when Officer Lerza picked Rocco out of a crop of five new police dogs that joined the force, Officer Paga said. Rocco came to Pittsburgh from the Czech Republic via an importer in Alabama.
"Rocco was already a fully trained dog," Officer Paga said. "He was more like an FTO and Phil was the recruit."
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, began swinging at the dog. A scuffle ensued.
Officer Lerza received stitches for puncture wounds to his shoulder. Officer Robert Scott sustained a knee injury that police suspect will likely require surgery. Another officer was treated for a hand injury.
When the melee was over, they realized that Rocco had been stabbed.
At the ceremony, Officer Jeffrey Deschon said he was grateful to Rocco. "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."
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published February 7, 2014 8:00 AM