"I lost my partner in this, and a family member," stated Officer Phil Lerza.
Lerza and his K-9 partner Rocco were part of a team that was trying to assist a Sheriff's deputy who had been assaulted while trying to make an arrest on January 28 2014 in Lawrenceville PA. John Rush, 22, was wanted for failing to register as a sex offender and violating his parole when he assaulted the deputy. Within 40 minutes of that assault Officer Lerza and Rocco responded with other officers to the basement where Rush had hidden.
Officer Lerza stated that he had shouted to Rush to respond or the police dog would be sent to restrain him. Instead of responding, Rush lunged at Rocco from behind a pillar in the basement. It was not until after Lerza and several officers were injured while restraining Rush that they found Rocco injured on the basement floor. Rush had stabbed Rocco in the back injuring a kidney, his spine and slicing through muscles on his back. Rocco survived emergency surgery but developed pneumonia and died two days later.
Rush faced 11 charges from that deadly fight in the basement and on December 15 2014 of 10 of the charges. He was convicted of four counts of assaulting a police officer as well as the count of torturing or harming a police animal. Rush was found not guilty of the one charge of burglarizing a building for breaking into the home to hide. His assault on Rocco was a second degree felony at the time of his arrest but the state legislature increased the penalty for assaulting a police animal to a first degree felony after Rocco's death. Rocco's law increases the penalty from seven years in prison to a minimum of 10 years.
The judge did not immediately sentence Rush in December but on March 10 2015, Rush was sentenced to 17 years and 9 months up to 44 years in prison for the assault on the officers. He also will face 8 years probation when he does get out of prison.
Rocco will not be forgotten by the police department and the city of Pittsburg PA. Not only did they change the state law concerning assault of a canine officer but they have also set up the Officer Rocco fund that is dedicated to the on going care and support of the canine department. The fund raised more than $47,000, mostly through the sale of special memorial t-shirts and their first purchase was for an additional 15 bullet and knife proof canine vests. The canine vests average about $900 each and will have a special patch added in memory of Rocco.
AM-GARD, a locally owned security company donated the $7,000 needed to purchase another police dog to return the department to 24 canines. The newest addition is Ari, a 17 month old German Shepard from the Netherlands and he will join the force with his first time handler Logan Hanley after completing a 3 month training course. There has been no word as to whether Officer Lerza will take on another canine partner after losing Rocco, his partner for 8 years.