Wounded Pittsburgh police dog dies a 'warrior's death'

| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, 9:27 a.m.

Flags on all city buildings were lowered to half-staff on Thursday night with the death of a Pittsburgh police dog being hailed as a hero for protecting his handler and fellow officers from a knife-wielding fugitive.

Rocco, an 8-year-old German shepherd who became a K-9 officer in 2008, appeared to rally in the morning before dying of stab wounds at 6:17 p.m. in the intensive care unit of the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Ohio Township, city police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

“He died a warrior's death, and there's honor in that,” said Anthony Yauch, one of more than two dozen city police officers who rushed to the hospital to stand vigil as word spread that Rocco had developed pneumonia and started to hemorrhage.

John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe is accused of attacking Rocco with a pocket knife, stabbing his handler, Officer Philip Lerza, in the shoulder. Two other officers were injured trying to apprehend Rush in the basement of a Lawrenceville building on Tuesday night. Allegheny County sheriff's deputies were seeking Rush on bench warrants.

“(K-9 officers) are trained to take it for us just like we're trained to take it for you,” said Raymond Kain, a city motorcycle officer and former K-9 handler.

The stabbing tore the dog's back muscles, damaged a bone in his spinal column and lacerated his kidney. Police charged Rush with disarming a law enforcement animal, harming a police animal, aggravated assault, burglary, cruelty to animals and other crimes.

Assaulting a police officer can result in a 20- to 40-year prison sentence, and abusing a police dog has a maximum penalty of 3 12 to 7 years, according to the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

“It's just like losing a human officer,” Richard said.

“Tonight, we lost a member of the Pittsburgh police force,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, who ordered the flags lowered after visiting Lerza and his wife at the veterinary hospital.

“He died saving his fellow members and lived serving all of us,” said Peduto, adding that Rocco would be buried with the same funeral honors as any other fallen city police officer.

A procession of more than two dozen police vehicles, many carrying the city's 21 K-9 officers, accompanied Rocco's remains through part of the city.

“Officer Lerza lost a member of his family,” said Cmdr. Eric Holmes, who is in charge of the police Zone 2 station in the Hill District where Lerza and Rocco where stationed. “(Handlers) spend more time with their K-9 than they do their own families.”

Police and deputies searching for Rush cornered him in the basement of a Butler Street building about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. When Rocco looked to his right, a man identified as Rush lunged at the dog and “swung wildly,” according to a criminal complaint. Several officers and Rocco struggled with Rush to bring him into custody, and only after he was handcuffed did they realize Rocco was hurt.

Veterinarians performed two surgeries and removed Rocco's damaged kidney, but they said he lost at least five liters of blood.

“Rocco had a very good morning. Things were looking up,” said Dr. Julie Compton, a veterinarian who operated on the K-9. “He recognized his handler and seemed to be doing quite well.”

A number of officers sobbed openly outside the hospital as the vigil continued. Others, some of them holding their young children inside the facility, stood quietly, saying little.

Richard said the police bureau is paying for all of Rocco's medical expenses. The Fraternal Order of Police set up a medical fund at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.

Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said the money collected by the credit union could be donated to the city to off-set the cost of Rocco's medical treatment.

Michael Hasch and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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