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Fallen K-9 and handler had 'bond like no other'

Rocco went on his last call late Tuesday

By Liz Navratil and Amy McConnell Schaarsmith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — When dog trainer and importer Pam Rogers met Rocco at a dog broker's kennel in Budel, Netherlands, a little more than seven years ago, the young German shepherd displayed the qualities she knew would make him an outstanding police K-9 partner.

Potential police dogs, Ms. Rogers said, are evaluated for their "patrol" skills, or their willingness to attack and subdue during a perceived threat. They also are evaluated on their detection potential, which is their willingness to hunt down objects in tall grass  a willingness that ultimately will be honed into the skill of locating narcotics, explosives, missing people and other targets.

(Pittsburgh Police Department Image)
(Pittsburgh Police Department Image)

Trainers also want dogs to have confidence in entering dark spaces and running across slick and sloped floors, a bold character, a dependable temperament, a desire to work hard to please the handler, and a strong bite. Only 10 percent of dogs evaluated are deemed suitable.

Rocco had it all, she said.

"He had a really good temperament and attitude, and he also had good drives for the patrol and he had a lot of courage," Ms. Rogers said Friday, as she waited to board a flight as part of a trip to Holland. She was traveling to import about two dozen German shepherds to her business, Kasseburg Canine Training Center of New Market, Ala.

Rocco, who originally came from a breeder in the Czech Republic, was about 14 months old and still untrained when she brought him to Alabama in 2006.

Trainers frequently look for potential police dogs in Europe, where they are bred to work and thus have a more suitable temperament for protection duties, experts say.

Rocco had been in Alabama for only about a month when Pittsburgh police K-9 trainers Dan Tice and Chris Micknowski spent two days at the center, testing dogs for the city's K-9 unit, said Ms. Rogers, who imports about 130 dogs a year for placement in law enforcement agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and police departments nationwide.

Officer Tice, now the lead K-9 instructor for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and Mr.  who held the position previously  settled on Rocco, and brought him back to Pittsburgh to begin obedience and police training. Mr. Micknowski no longer is with the department; he declined an interview request last week. Officer Tice could not be reached for this story.

Once trained, police dogs are paired with handlers and live with their families. The bond is strong, possibly even more so than between human officers.

"You've got to take care of the dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it's like having another child in the family," Ms. Rogers said.

And when a K-9 officer dies?

"Generally they're like a member of the family, and the spouses get attached to the dog, the children get attached to the dog," Ms. Rogers said. "It's heartbreaking for the family  there's an extremely tight bond."

After he arrived in Pittsburgh, Rocco was paired with Officer Phil Lerza, who had served in the city's Zone 5 station in Highland Park, often considered the most demanding in the city due to its volume of violent calls.

Officer Lerza, now 38, joined the bureau in December 2001. Rocco was his first K-9 partner.

"They had a bond like no other," said Officer Lerza's aunt, Joy Gezo of Lower Burrell. "They talk about a man and his dog, and they were so bonded."

Some days, Rocco joined Officer Lerza to sniff out sports stadiums before football or baseball games; the dog was trained to detect guns and drugs, Ms. Gezo said.

When pop musician Britney Spears came to the Consol Energy Center in 2011, Officer Lerza and Rocco swept her dressing room.

"He liked her dress that was hanging there and he was sniffing that," Ms. Gezo said with a chuckle. "That's the last [story] they were telling me."

On regular workdays, Rocco and Officer Lerza patrolled out of the Zone 2 station in the Hill District, most recently working a night shift.

When the dog was off duty, he returned to the Brookline home Officer Lerza shares with his wife, 6- and 10-year-old daughters and a pet dog. When family came to visit, they often tried to keep Rocco out of sight to avoid accidentally exciting him, Ms. Gezo said. In many ways, their lives were tailored around the dog.

"Phil is a fabulous guy," Ms. Gezo said. "They sacrificed a lot to keep people safe. The whole family did. When they would go away, somebody would have to look out for the dog. They had to plan a lot of events and things for him, too. It was just like another human being."

Rocco went on his last call late Tuesday.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Allegheny County Sheriff's Deputy John Herb thought he spotted John Rush, 21, a homeless man formerly from McKees Rocks who was wanted on numerous warrants and has a history of mental illness.

Police said Rush tried to grab the deputy's gun, punched him in the face and ran into the basement of a home in the 3700 block of Butler Street. The deputy used a Taser on Rush, but it didn't faze him, police said.

Zone 2 officers came to assist. Officer Lerza stood by the doorway of the basement and shouted three times that he had a dog, police said.

When Rush did not show himself, police said, they sent Rocco into the basement. Police said Rush "lunged out from near a pillar and attacked K-9 Rocco" and then attacked at least three other officers who attempted to arrest him. Officer Lerza was taken to a hospital, where he received stitches for stab wounds to his shoulder, Ms. Gezo said.

"He was so involved with that dog getting stabbed and so upset about that that he didn't even know he was stabbed until one of his colleagues said, 'You need to get checked,' " Ms. Gezo said. "They loved each other, he and that dog. It was just a bond like no other."

After Officer Lerza was treated, he went to Rocco's side at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township.

Officers grew hopeful Thursday that Rocco  who had undergone surgeries for a 3-inch-deep stab wound  would recover.

Early that morning, police announced that Rocco's blood count had improved. Around noon, they said he had been upgraded from critical to serious condition and been moved off a table into an area where he could move about.

But as the day faded, so did the officers' hopes.

Officer Lerza's wife was preparing to pick up their children from school Thursday when officers came to her home and told her she needed to head to the veterinary hospital.

"They said he had gotten pneumonia and was in bad shape, and then about 6 o'clock or so he passed," Ms. Gezo said.

Friday was a "really, really tough day," Ms. Gezo said. "They're just trying to process it all, and the kids are having a tough time."

Messages from police officers and others poured into the Lerza home. The family spent part of the day with Officer Tice and part of it coordinating with workers at the Oak Crest Pet Crematory in Ross and the bureau to coordinate services for the German shepherd.

The loss of a K-9 partner, one former officer said, is much like losing a human family member. Jeff Lukacs, now a Methodist pastor, worked for 10 years as a K-9 officer with West Mifflin police.

Every day, his dog, Heiko, grew excited at the prospect of heading to work  so much so that Mr. Lukacs often put the dog outside while preparing for duty so Heiko would not knock things over in the house.

Mr. Lukacs retired from the force shortly after he was injured at the scene of a house fire in 2005. A few months later, Heiko died.

Mr. Lukacs still chokes up when he talks about it.

"He would protect me until he could protect me no longer," Mr. Lukacs said of the dog. "It was part of his makeup and if you attack the handler, you are calling down all of the fire that God put into the dog."

Copyright 2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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