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Man accused of stabbing, killing K-9 Officer Rocco to stand trial, remain jailed without bond

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 4:06 p.m.

Pittsburgh police K-9 Officer Rocco pushed himself between an assailant and his human partner after suffering a knife stab to the back, Officer Phil Lerza testified at a hearing on Wednesday.

“Rocco came in front of me, and he was almost on him,” Lerza said at the preliminary hearing for John Rush, 21, of Stowe. “I saw him strike Rocco in the head.”

Lerza testified that he and other officers fought with Rush until they subdued him in the basement of a Lawrenceville building on Jan. 28. It was then that Lerza saw Rocco, an 8-year-old German shepherd, bleeding from the mouth.

“I put my hand to pet him, and it was wet on his side,” Lerza said. “I lifted my hand up, and it was dark red blood.”

Rocco died two days later in Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Ohio Township. Hundreds attended his funeral on Friday.

District Judge Derwin Rushing ordered Rush to stand trial on all charges, which include aggravated assault, abusing a police animal, resisting arrest, cruelty to animals and other counts. He is being held without bail in the Allegheny County Jail.

Rush's attorney, Randall McKinney, said afterward that his client is “extremely remorseful.”

“I believe the public and everyone would be well-served to reserve judgment in this matter until all the facts come to light,” McKinney said.

During the hearing, McKinney asked Lerza if he heard Rush try to surrender when the officer warned he would send the dog into the basement. Lerza firmly denied that Rush said anything.

“He did not sound off,” Lerza said. “I did not hear anyone sound off.”

Lerza testified that Rocco was 4 to 6 feet in front of him in the basement when he saw the dog's head snap to the right.

“The defendant lunged from the pillars, his arms were swinging wildly,” Lerza said. “He struck Rocco in the back. And then he came at me.”

Lerza received three stitches in his shoulder for a cut he received during the fight. Police and Allegheny County sheriff's deputies had been seeking Rush on bench warrants.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger announced this week that he will buy a dog for the police department through the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation, which was established when a police dog was shot and killed in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio.

Other organizations, including the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, have collected donations to benefit the K-9 unit. The credit union fund has raised more than $22,000, FOP President Mike LaPorte said, and is waiting to hear from the mayor's office on how to proceed with a fund merger.

Last week, Mayor Bill Peduto announced the formation of the Officer Rocco K-9 Memorial Fund within The Pittsburgh Foundation, and asked that all agencies collecting money for the dog forward their donations to the fund. Foundation spokesman John Ellis said that since Friday, 130 donations totaling $6,500 have been received.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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