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Hundreds attend funeral service for slain Pittsburgh K-9 Rocco

| Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, 10:33 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The family of Rocco, the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed on January 28, walks past other K-9 officers and their handlers lined up outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, before the memorial service for Rocco.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer lines up with other K-9 officers outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, before the memorial service for Rocco, the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed to death in an incident on January 28.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Police officers Hoebel (left) and Rummel embrace outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, after the memorial service for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed to death in an incident on January 28.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Two police officers embrace outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, after the memorial service for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed in an incident on January 28.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The family of Rocco, the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed in an incident on January 28, walk past other K-9 officers and their handlers lined up outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, before the memorial service for Rocco
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A Pittsburgh Police officer becomes emotional while lined up with other K-9 officers outsideSoldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, before the memorial service for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed in an incident on January 28.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Police Officers carry the badge, a folded flag and a photograph of Rocco, the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed to death in an incident on Jan. 28, past other K-9 officers and their handlers lined up outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, before the memorial service for Rocco.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer climbs the steps to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A procession of police vehicles travel down Fifth Avenue outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Friday Feb. 7, 2014, before the memorial service for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer who was stabbed in an incident on January 28.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer climbs the steps to the the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer climbs the steps to the the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Hundreds of police dogs file out after lining the steps for the funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer as it climbed the steps to the the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The funeral procession for Rocco, the Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer, makes its way into Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer winds down Fifth Avenue in Oakland on its way to the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer winds down 5th Avenue in Oakland on its way to the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Police dogs and their handlers leave after the funeral procession for Rocco the Pittsburgh Police K9 officer climbed the steps to the the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland for his memorial service February 7, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Flags fly at half-mast as Chuck Goessler, 47, of Brighton Heights tries to get his dogs Jasmine and Coco Marie to pose for a picture for his wife, Mary, (off camera) as they wait to pay their respects outside the memorial ceremony for slain Pittsburgh Police K9 officer Rocco by Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Goessler had been teaching his dogs how to bow as the procession went past. Rocco died of complications from being stabbed by an alleged criminal while on duty.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
'Lest we forget.' Pittsburgh Police K9 vehicles now bear a sticker in memory of Rocco, like this one parked outside the memorial ceremony for the slain Pittsburgh Police K9 officer by Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Rocco died on Jan. 28 of complications from being stabbed by an alleged criminal while on duty.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Marci Anderson (left), 41, of Point Breeze, and Arelene Karas, 51, of Millvale, stand outside the Golden Bone Pet Resort and hold signs of support as they watch the memorial procession for slain Pittsburgh Police K9 officer Rocco pass by along Washington Boulevard in Homewood on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Rocco died on Jan. 28 of complications from being stabbed by an alleged criminal while on duty. Anderson and Karas work at the business, which groomed police dogs all week as a gesture of good will and to get them ready for the memorial service.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Vet technician Cindy Scrivnor (front right) of McKeesport holds a shelter dog as she and other workers, volunteers, and friends bring dogs out from the Animal Rescue League Shelter and Wildlife Center to wait for the memorial procession for slain Pittsburgh Police K9 officer Rocco pass by along Washington Boulevard in East Liberty on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Rocco, who was a clinic patient at the center, died on Jan. 28 of complications from being stabbed by an alleged criminal while on duty.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Stefanie Martin, 32, of North Hills, holds on to the leash of her adopted dog Marley as they watch the memorial procession for slain Pittsburgh Police K9 officer Rocco pass by the Animal Rescue League Shelter and Wildlife Center along Washington Boulevard in Homewood on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Martin adopted Marley from the Animal Rescue League Shelter, where Rocco was a clinic patient. Rocco died on Jan. 28, two days after being stabbed by an alleged criminal while on duty.

Grief mixed with defiance on Friday in Oakland when hundreds of people, some with dogs, gathered to pay final respects to Rocco, the slain K-9 officer described by many as “not just a dog.”

“You cannot teach loyalty and courage,” said retired police Sgt. Christopher Micknowski, a canine instructor. “The loyalty and courage that played out several days ago cannot be overstated. ... Rocco not only had those attributes, but he never hesitated to show them.”

The 8-year-old German shepherd and his partner, Pittsburgh police Officer Phil Lerza, were injured while capturing a fugitive last month in Lawrenceville.

John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe is accused of attacking Rocco with a pocket knife, stabbing Lerza in the shoulder, and injuring two other officers as they tried to arrest him in a building basement. Many people at Rocco's funeral said the dog's actions might have prevented human deaths.

“He's not just a dog,” said Max Sciullo, father of slain Pittsburgh Officer Paul Sciullo. “If it wasn't for that dog, we might be having three more funerals instead of one.”

On a cold morning, with flags whipping in the wind at half staff, bagpipes played as Lerza, flanked by his wife and children, carried Rocco's ashes into Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.

Lerza passed about 80 police dogs and their partners who lined the walkway to the building. Many dogs whined as the urn passed. Some barked.

The service, which followed a police procession from the K-9 Training Center on Washington Boulevard, was opened to the public when Lerza and others received phone calls, letters and emails of support.

“As we have seen, Rocco touched the lives and hearts of many people,” Acting Chief Regina McDonald said.

Lerza did not speak during the ceremony, attended by about 600 people.

He and his wife, sitting in the front row of the auditorium, wiped tears as Officer Daniel Paga described Rocco as “a big dog, strong — he reminded me of a bear.

“His bark was so high-pitched,” Paga said, his voice cracking. “He could be coming from blocks away and you'd know: Phil and Rocco are coming.”

For all of the praise, the procession and 45-minute service did not escape criticism.

Road closures and traffic problems prompted some people to take to AM radio talk shows and social media to question whether a dog deserved such a send-off. In Oakland, many detractors wouldn't give their names. One woman, who stopped to ask what was going on, said, “Good grief. I get it, but geez.”

Darren Garfield, 46, of Oakland said the funeral was a nice tribute but over the top with the associated traffic blockages and publicity.

“There has to be a balance between acknowledging the service of K-9s but not going so far as to create traffic problems,” Garfield said. Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said police did not know the cost of the funeral. She said most officers who worked the service were on-duty or volunteered their time. No overtime was authorized, she said.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who was out of town, said the tribute was well-deserved.

“He faced an assailant's knife without hesitation, without retreat, and with a loyalty that reached beyond mere ‘trait' and well into the realm of character,” Peduto said in a statement released after meeting with the family on Thursday.

Many funeral attendees wept for Rocco, even though they never met the dog.

“This is an event I hope to never see again,” said Cindy Bakow, 55, of Franklin Park, wiping tears as she watched police dogs and their handlers. “This K-9 police officer died a warrior's death. ... He gave his life protecting us. The perpetrator should be tried for murder of an officer.”

Gerry Hoel, 67, of Bloomfield walked slowly up the steps toward Soldiers & Sailors using her cane.

“I wanted to be here for the family. I don't know them, but I feel their sorrow. I feel so sad this happened,” Hoel said. “Rocco was certainly brave. He was definitely not just a dog.”

Chris Togneri and Bobby Kerlik are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Togneri at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com, and Kerlik at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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