Stabbed K-9 saved partner's life, still critical
John L. Rush is accused of attacking K-9, Rocco, with a pocket knife, stabbing his handler, Officer Philip Lerza, in the shoulder, and hurting two other officers
By Margaret Harding
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh police officers stood vigil on Wednesday for a badly wounded police dog that may have saved his partner's life in a struggle with a knife-wielding suspect.
"He's willing to give his very life to protect yours," said Sgt. Mike LaPorte, a former K-9 officer. "It's a special relationship."
Knife jabs tore muscles of the dog, damaged its spine and lacerated its kidney late Tuesday. The 8-year-old German shepherd known as Rocco got emergency treatment at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty Emergency Center in Ohio Township while officers gathered nearby.
Doctors performed two surgeries, removed the damaged kidney and replaced at least five liters of blood, said Dr. Julie Compton, a staff surgeon.
"He just keeps bleeding and bleeding," Compton said. "He's had all he can take, as far as surgeries and transfusions."
John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe is accused of attacking Rocco with a pocket knife, stabbing his handler, Officer Philip Lerza, in the shoulder, and hurting two other officers when they struggled to apprehend him in the basement of a Lawrenceville building Tuesday night.
"If this dog didn't take the brunt of what he took from the guy, I'm pretty sure his handler wouldn't be with us today," Compton said.
"Our dogs come first," said Officer Dan Tice, who oversees the K-9 unit.
Lerza, who could not be reached for comment, stayed in the veterinary hospital for hours after the incident, left to get treatment for his wounds and returned, Tice said. Rocco and Lerza have been partners since 2010.
Compton brought her two dogs to donate blood when she came in at 1 a.m. and said a city police dog donated. Fifteen police officers waited at the clinic for hours, she said. Throughout the afternoon, more officers came and went.
"In our mind, (Rocco's) another officer," Tice said.
LaPorte described Rocco as a "dual purpose" dog, trained in both patrol and explosive and gun detection. He said Lerza and his family remained by Rocco's side into the evening.
Rush escaped from an Allegheny County sheriff's deputy who tried to stop him when deputies saw him walking along Butler Street, Lt. Jack Kearney said.
Rush is accused of assaulting a man with a baseball bat during a burglary in December, and of failing to register as a sex offender. He was sought on two bench warrants, Kearney said.
A woman called 911 at 10:30 p.m. when she saw a man, identified as Rush, lurking around a Butler Street building, Lt. Daniel Herrmann said. Pittsburgh police, including canine officers, and deputies surrounded the building. When they found Rush, he lunged at the officers with a pocket knife, Herrmann said.
With help from Rocco, officers apprehended Rush and took him to the Allegheny County Jail. He is charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, torturing a police animal, animal cruelty, burglary, disarming an officer and other crimes.
Assaulting a police officer can result in a 20- to 40-year prison sentence, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said.
If Rush is convicted, "he's going to spend a great deal of the rest of his life in prison," Zappala said.
More than 200 people attended a memorial service for Ulf, a Pittsburgh police dog killed in action during a 2008 shootout in Knoxville.
"Our handlers take (their dogs) home," Tice said. "We spend more time with our dogs than our loved ones. It's a bond you can't explain in words."
Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report.
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