Suspect in K-9 death held for court

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Pittsburgh police K-9 Rocco was the first to enter a dimly lit basement Jan. 28. He went in ahead of his handler and was trained to stand in place, bark and turn his head if he spotted a still, peaceful human.

Instead, Officer Philip Lerza testified Wednesday, John Rush, a 21-year-old homeless fugitive, popped out from behind a pillar in the Butler Street apartment building after the dog approached and began swinging his fists.

District Judge Derwin Rushing ordered Rush to stand trial on charges that he killed Rocco in the ensuing scuffle and injured three human Pittsburgh police officers and an Allegheny County sheriff's deputy who tried to arrest him on outstanding warrants earlier that night.

After Rush emerged from behind the pillar, he swung toward Officer Lerza, whose hat fell over his eyes, the officer testified. At some point, Officer Daniel Nowak joined the fight and sprained a finger. Officer Robert Scott tore his ACL and will likely require surgery to repair his knee, police have said.

It wasn't until the end of the commotion that police noticed Rocco, an 8-year-old German Shepherd, was injured.

"I noticed his mouth was bleeding. I kind of put my hand back to pet him and felt a wet spot," Officer Lerza testified.

He initially thought the dog rolled in water during the scuffle.

Then, "I lifted my hand up and there was dark, red blood all over my hand."

He grabbed Rocco, who had been his partner for almost four years, and told officers he was taking the dog to the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center. On his way out, he said, he heard colleagues mention that they'd found a knife.

It wasn't until later, after the dog was admitted at the animal hospital, that Officer Lerza noticed his shoulder was sore. He pulled off his shirt and saw three small puncture wounds, which doctors later stitched up. Rocco died two days later, after he contracted pneumonia following surgery.

Defense attorney Randall McKinney raised questions during the preliminary hearing about how the dog acted during the arrest and whether it was possible Rush had responded when police asked if anyone was in the basement that was about 80 feet long.

Rush was present at the hearing but did not speak.

Mr. McKinney said after the hearing, "Mr. Rush is extremely remorseful for his actions. That being said, I understand this is an emotional case. ... I believe the public and everyone else would be wise to reserve judgment until all the facts come to light."

Police bureau spokeswoman Diane Richard said Wednesday that police still did not know the final costs for Rocco's veterinary bills or funeral services.


Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438. First Published February 12, 2014 3:02 PM

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