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Pittsburgh officer training new K9 partner

| Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 11:24 p.m.
Betsi and Chris Mooney (left), owners of Mooney's Place, present a check for the Officer Rocco Canine Fund at the Pittsburgh P{olice Credit Union on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Joining them are Jennie K. Zioncheck of The Pittsburgh Foundation and Officer Phil Lerza, who was Rocco's partner at the time the canine officer was killed by a suspect.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Betsi and Chris Mooney (left), owners of Mooney's Place, present a check for the Officer Rocco Canine Fund at the Pittsburgh P{olice Credit Union on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Joining them are Jennie K. Zioncheck of The Pittsburgh Foundation and Officer Phil Lerza, who was Rocco's partner at the time the canine officer was killed by a suspect.

Life without Pittsburgh police K9 Rocco has been hard, his former handler said Tuesday.

“It's been a long three months, but I'm better,” Officer Phil Lerza said. “I just want to thank everybody for the support.”

Lerza said he has begun training with Beny, a 13-month-old mix between a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois that the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation bought for him.

“We just started, but it looks good so far,” Lerza said.

Lerza attended a check presentation ceremony Tuesday at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union in Elliott. The Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 and the credit union received more than $23,000 in donations that came in after Rocco, an 8-year-old German shepherd, died of injuries from a stabbing attack in January.

“It's amazing, actually,” Lerza said of the donations.

The money will go into a Pittsburgh Foundation fund to benefit the city police K9 unit. Among the donations was a $2,000 check from Mooney's Place in Carrick.

“It will be for whatever needs the K9 unit has,” said Sgt. Mike LaPorte, the past president of the union who helped establish the fund.

On Monday, Lerza and other members of the K9 unit participated in the Pirates' Opening Day ceremonies. Cassandra Buncie, co-founder of Black n Gold Girls, said she re-opened sales of the “Remembering Rocco” T-shirts for the occasion. Sales from the shirts have raised more than $45,000 that will be used for local K-9 programs, she said.

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 during a struggle in the basement of a Lawrenceville building on Jan. 28. Rocco died two days later at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Ohio Township.

Rush is being held at the Allegheny County Jail while awaiting trial on charges of aggravated assault, abusing a police animal, resisting arrest, cruelty to animals and other counts. The attack has spawned state legislation to make the penalty for attacking a police K9 dog more severe.

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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