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Protective dog vests will be 1st buy as Rocco fund nears $100K

| Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
This photo, snapped by Swissvale Officer Dave Zacchia, helped inspire the concept for the statue planned to commemorate police dogs at the officer memorial at the intersection of North Shore Drive and Art Rooney Way on the North Shore.
Donna Best
An oil painting by local artist Susan Wagner will be auctioned to raise money to build a memorial to commemorate police dogs. Prints of the painting are also available.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The 'Remembering Rocco' T-shirt logo was designed by Chris Benson of Carnegie.
Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer Rocco

Six months since Pittsburgh police K-9 Rocco died of stab wounds suffered in the line of duty, his memory lives on in plans for a bronze police dog memorial and a fundraising campaign to buy bulletproof vests and establish a police dog trust fund.

The Officer Rocco K-9 Memorial Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation had almost $95,000 as of the end of July, forming a new trust exclusively for the city's K-9 unit. The first purchase will be 24 bulletproof vests for city police dogs.

A separate fundraising effort to build a memorial to fallen police dogs has raised $6,000 toward its $50,000 goal.

Cmdr. Donna Best, president of the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial nonprofit in Allegheny County, said plans for the memorial came about through conversations with Susan Wagner, a local sculptor who made the police officers memorial on Art Rooney Avenue near Heinz Field.

“We just want to honor them,” said Best, who works for the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office. “Those dogs work for nothing but praise and love.”

Rocco died Jan. 30, succumbing to knife wounds of his spine and kidneys inflicted during an arrest in a Lawrenceville basement two days earlier. John L. Rush, 22, of Stowe, is accused of stabbing the dog with a pocket knife and injuring three officers, including Rocco's handler, Officer Phil Lerza, who was stabbed in the shoulder. Rush is set for trial in December on multiple charges, including torturing a police animal.

Officers planning the statue hope to raise the money by May so it can be installed during National Police Memorial Month.

This summer, Wagner finished making a clay sculpture that will be cast in bronze. The life-sized German shepherd will sit at the officer's feet, above the engraved phrase, “Ever Watchful.”

Wagner donated an oil painting of a K-9 that will be auctioned to raise money. Prints of the painting, a walk and an 18-month calendar depicting Allegheny County police dogs are planned to help raise money.

“These officers love these dogs, and these dogs love them right back,” Wagner said. “Everyone is so excited to see them honored.”

The memorial will be dedicated also to Ulf, Jupp and Joker, three police dogs from Allegheny County-based departments killed in recent years.

Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the city will receive the bulletproof vests from the Rocco memorial fund once six K-9 officers graduate from training at the end of this month. The unit will receive 5 percent of the fund's worth each year, he said. Stephanie Higgins, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Foundation, said the money could pay for kennel renovations, as well.

The Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 and the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union made $23,000 in donations to the fund in April. Police union President Howard McQuillan said donations occasionally still arrive in the mail.

Almost half of the memorial fund's money came from proceeds of more than 3,000 T-shirts sold through online store Black n Gold Girls. Co-owner Cassandra Buncie said they raised $47,540 from “Remembering Rocco” tees, a black V-neck printed with a gold paw print and “Crime's worst enemy, man's best friend.”

Buncie plans to make a second donation when she sells out of the second batch of shirts. About 50 remain, she said.

Orders have come in from across the country, along with phone calls from dog owners touched by Rocco's story.

“We wanted to make sure we did right by the money,” Buncie said. “Most people gave with the intention of outfitting dogs in the future, to the degree that you can safeguard against something as horrific as this happening again.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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