Man gets 17 3/4 to 44 years in prison for killing police dog Rocco

John Rush is escorted through the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 10, 2015.
John Rush is escorted through the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 10, 2015.
Photo by WPXI
| Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 11:03 a.m.

The man who fatally stabbed a Pittsburgh police dog will spend 17 34 to 44 years in prison, an Allegheny County judge ruled Tuesday, capping a series of events that resulted in thousands raised for charity and a new state law in the name of his victim, Rocco.

John Rush, 22, of Stowe said nothing as sheriff's deputies led him back to his holding cell in handcuffs and shackles. A sheriff's deputy K-9 barked at him before the hearing.

Common Pleas Judge Jill Rangos doled out the lengthy sentence — a move applauded by police officers but criticized by some who said killers of people get less time.

Rocco's handler, Officer Phil Lerza, said he is “happy” with the sentence.

“I lost my partner from this, and he was also a family member,” Lerza told the judge.

Pittsburgh police union President Howard McQuillan agreed.

“(Rush) assaulted police officers and killed a police dog,” McQuillan said. “I think a lot of people forget (Lerza) was stabbed in the shoulder.”

Rangos stacked sentences consecutively for several of Rush's convictions, a common practice. A jury convicted him in December of 11 of 12 counts, including disarming a law enforcement officer and four counts of aggravated assault on four police officers.

Rangos said it is her policy to make sure she dispenses justice for each assualt victim. Rush will serve about 3 12 to 7 years for killing Rocco and 3 to 7 12 years each for stabbing Lerza and punching the other officers. The judge gave him 2/ 12 to 7 years for attempting to take an officer's gun.

Rush's attorney, Aaron Sontz, declined to comment and offered no argument prior to sentencing. Rush testified at trial that he stabbed the dog in self-defense.

Rush's mother, Renee Rush, did not speak to reporters. Assistant District Attorney Jennifer DiGiovanni told Rangos that Renee Rush said her son has significant mental health problems and has been institutionalized for most of his life.

“She's afraid of her son. When he would stay with her, she'd sleep with her door locked,” DiGiovanni said.

The judge detailed Rush's “significant history of violence,” noting he had been charged more than 20 times in several cases dating back to his juvenile record. She recounted the facts of the case, saying Rush was a Megan's Law offender on probation who wasn't complying with supervision requirements before fleeing from police and using a knife to fight with officers.

“The net result is a sentence higher than you see in a number of homicide and child-abuse cases,” said Duquesne University law professor Wes Oliver.

Oliver said the judge shouldn't have a “policy” about when to dole out consecutive time; each case should be considered individually.

“I think it's a possible appellate issue,” Oliver said.

Prosecutors said Rush, who was wanted on a probation-violation warrant, fought with a sheriff's deputy on Butler Street, evaded a Taser attempt and eluded capture Jan. 28, 2014.

They said he stabbed Rocco in the back about an hour later when police cornered him in the basement of a Lawrenceville apartment building. The 8-year-old German shepherd died two days later under a veterinarian's care.

The killing prompted hundreds to attend Rocco's funeral at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, and his death drew national attention.

In July, then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed “Rocco's Law,” increasing the penalty to up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

More than $108,000 in donations went to the Officer Rocco K-9 Memorial Fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation, forming a trust exclusively for the city's K-9 unit. The money will go toward fitted knife- and bullet-resistant vests for the dogs, training and other equipment.

The Law Enforcement Officers Memorial of Allegheny raised more than $32,000 of a $50,000 goal to add a K-9 statue next to the police memorial on the North Shore. President Donna Best, a commander in the sheriff's office, said the new statue should be unveiled at a May ceremony and will list police dogs killed in the line of duty in the county.

“Rocco, of course, brought this to everyone's attention. We've neglected to recognize the death of other police K-9s,” Best said. “They're police officers just as much as we are.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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