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Slain police dog's struggle inspires action

| Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, 3:18 p.m.
Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer Rocco

Maybe the smallest donation to help slain Pittsburgh police K-9 Officer Rocco was the most poignant.

“We had two girls that came in after school yesterday and emptied their piggy banks,” Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union CEO Karen Janoski said on Friday through tears. “We've had many people call us sobbing, like me. And many people sharing stories of how upset they were and how they want to send a card where they could put their pets' paws on it. It's been pretty crazy.”

The donations from the girls amounted to about $5, but they demonstrated a depth of emotion evoked by Rocco's desperate struggle.

The 8-year-old German shepherd died on Thursday night in the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township, two days after a stabbing attack in a Lawrenceville basement.

“I'm just torn up over it,” said Gizella Miller, 55, of New Stanton, who planned to donate to the fund. “I sat last night and cried. I feel so sorry for that officer that lost his dog. If I could, I would get him another dog.”

The credit union has received about 300 donations so far, Janoski said. More than one has been for $500, and some were from as far away as Colorado.

“We had a retired lieutenant who wanted to adopt the dog if he recovered but couldn't work,” Janoski said. “We have people sending special prayers and ask that we forward them to the handler (Officer Philip Lerza), to send to his family.”

Mayor Bill Peduto ordered flags flown at half-staff in the city, and police plan a memorial procession ending in a funeral service with full honors on Friday in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust in Oakland.

Police officers, veterinarians and pet owners brought their dogs in to donate blood for Rocco. Others took to social media, such as Gov. Tom Corbett, who tweeted a message thanking Rocco for his service.

More than 48,000 people supported the Facebook page “Justice For Rocco,” and at least 1,200 signed an online petition to the White House to increase the penalty for killing a K-9 officer. Still others wrote poetry dedicated to the dog.

“I think people just feel for dogs and cats and animals in general, and it's really sad that somebody would stab a dog that was just doing his job,” said Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation, which raised $5,000 in fewer than 24 hours for the K-9 unit. “That's what people are really rallying around.”

John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe is accused of attacking Rocco with a pocket knife, stabbing his handler, Lerza, in the shoulder, and injuring two other officers during a struggle in the basement of a Lawrenceville building.

It wasn't until officers handcuffed Rush that they noticed the dog's blood. They rushed Rocco to the animal clinic, where Suaz Forsythe watched as officers coaxed Rocco from the van.

“He seemed like a puppy because he wasn't sure of his legs,” said Forsythe, an Animal Friends spokeswoman. “To see it all unfolding like that, it was heartbreaking. But to see the police community in full force, it moved us to tears. It really did.”

It also moved many to action. About 100 letters for Rocco arrived at the credit union on Friday, Janoski said. A flood of calls prompted the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 and the credit union to establish the “Rocco Fund.”

“Anybody who is an animal lover, it touches,” Janoski said. “It reaches somewhere that other people don't experience if they don't have an animal.”

FOP President Mike LaPorte is a former K-9 officer who watched his canine partner weaken from illness after he retired. The dog's death was like “losing a family member,” the sergeant said.

“People can relate to this because of the relationship they have with their own animals,” LaPorte said. “You have an incredible love for them.”

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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