PITTSBURGH —With an American flag draped over his coffin, Pittsburgh police K-9 Officer Rocco received full police honors Thursday night as his body was escorted out of the veterinary clinic where he bravely battled severe injuries the past two days.
“They have a heavy heart. They lost a colleague. Officer (Phil) Lerza lost a member of his family,” said Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Eric Holmes.
Most members of the police K-9 unit, including many of its 21 K-9s, were at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty Emergency Center on Camp Horne Road in Ohio Township to salute Rocco. Then a police procession led throughout the city, ending at Cemetery Lane.
“He died saving his fellow members and he lived serving all of us,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who has ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at all city buildings in honor of Rocco.
Peduto told reporters he spoke to Lerza and his wife and “their heart is broken” over Rocco’s death.
A member of the bureau since 2008, the 8-year-old German shepherd appeared to be improving after suffering a severe stab wound while protecting his fellow officers late Tuesday night, but his condition worsened Thursday afternoon and he went into cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at 6:17 p.m.
“He fought hard for almost two days straight. He fought as hard here as he fought out on the field. It was a great loss for the city of Pittsburgh,” said Dr. Julie Compton, who treated Rocco. “If you were to wander around this hospital, there wouldn’t be one dry eye in this hospital.”
Compton believes that if it wasn’t for Rocco, his handler could have been killed. The two have been partners since 2010, police said.
“If it wasn’t for this dog, I’m pretty sure that that handler wouldn’t be here. The amount of injuries that this dog sustained, if that was meant for his handler … he may not have (survived),” said Compton.
The support Rocco received from the community and his fellow police officers was overwhelming. Rocco’s handler and another officer who was injured in the scuffle told Channel 4 Action News’ Marcie Cipriani they were contacted by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose foundation gives grants to K-9 units at police and fire departments nationwide.
“As a former K-9 handler myself, I recognize the bond an officer has with their partner,” said Holmes. “They become one of the family and probably more importantly, the K-9 handlers spend more time with their partners than their family because they’re with them at work and at home.”
Pittsburgh police are not taking donations for Rocco because the city will pay for all expenses related to his care and burial, but the local FOP has set up a fund at Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Officials have said money from that fund could go back to the city to replace money the city spent on Rocco’s care.
Rocco suffered injuries to his back, kidney and spine during a scuffle with 21-year-old John Rush Tuesday night in Lawrenceville that were causing him to bleed out, police said. He underwent two surgeries to stop the bleeding and received blood transfusions Wednesday afternoon, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.
The dog’s condition appeared to be improving Thursday — he was no longer confined to a table and was lying on his sternum instead of his side — but doctors discovered he also had pneumonia and a broken shoulder. He took a turn for the worse when his bleeding started again.
Seven dogs, including two of Compton’s own, donated blood for Rocco. The center’s reserve supply of blood was depleted and volunteer donors had to be contacted.
In addition to Rocco’s injuries, one officer had a minor stab wound to his shoulder and two others suffered knee, leg and arm injuries during the scuffle with Rush.
Rush, 21, whose last known address was in McKees Rocks, was convicted of sex crimes in 2011 but most recently had warrants for failing to comply with Megan’s Law registration and for an alleged home invasion, according to the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office.
City police said a county sheriff’s deputy working with the warrant squad saw Rush walking in the area of Penn Avenue and Butler Street on Tuesday evening. The deputy followed Rush and tried to arrest him at 37th and Butler streets, but a struggle ensued and Rush was able to break away, police said.
Police said the search for Rush took them to the 3700 block of Butler Street, where a resident called 911 to report a suspicious man lurking around a home at about 10:30 p.m. Police said they found Rush in the basement of the building, and he lunged forward and began swinging at them with a pocket knife, but they were able to arrest him with the help of the K-9, Rocco.
Rush was taken to UPMC Mercy and then to the Allegheny County Jail, where he was being held without bond on his outstanding warrants. Police said he will also face charges of aggravated assault, burglary, possessing instruments of crime, disarming a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest.