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Gut-Wrenching Images Capture Final Salute to Fallen K-9 Hero


"'One of the family."

Image source: WTAE-TV

Pittsburgh police were hopeful Thursday that Rocco, the K-9 battling stabbing injuries he sustained while helping officers bring down a fugitive sex offender, would pull through.

Emotions were especially pointed because the beloved 8-year-old German shepherd's actions likely saved the lives of officers who collared 21-year-old John Rush Tuesday night, WTAE-TV reported.

Image source: WTAE-TV

Rocco suffered injuries to his back, kidney and spine and was bleeding out Thursday night, police said. After two surgeries and multiple blood transfusions — seven dogs, including two owned by the lead vet, donated blood for Rocco — his condition appeared to be improving Thursday. But doctors discovered Rocco had contracted pneumonia and also suffered a broken shoulder. Then the bleeding started again.

Rocco went into cardiac arrest on Thursday night, and he was gone.

"He died saving his fellow members and he lived serving all of us," Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told WTAE, adding that he ordered flags flown at half-mast at all city buildings in Rocco's honor.

Soon the sound of a bagpipe filled the entrance to the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty Emergency Center as officers carried out Rocco's body, draped in an American flag.

Image source: WTAE-TV

Image source: WTAE-TV

Most members of the police K-9 unit, including many of its 21 K-9s, were present as Rocco received full police honors. A police procession then commenced, winding throughout the city, and ending at Cemetery Lane.

Image source: WTAE-TV

Peduto said he spoke to Officer Phil Lerza — Rocco's handler since 2010 and caretaker at home during off hours — and said that Lerza and his wife were heartbroken over Rocco's death.

"He lost a member of his family," Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Eric Holmes told WTAE.

"As a former K-9 handler myself, I recognize the bond an officer has with their partner," Holmes added. "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."

Image source: WTAE-TV

WTAE reported that Lerza, who was also injured in the arrest, brought Rocco in and didn't receive treatment himself until after his partner got medical attention.

Dr. Julie Compton treated Rocco and said that if it wasn't for the K-9's actions, Lerza could have been killed in the scuffle.

"If it wasn't for this dog, I'm pretty sure that that handler wouldn't be here," she told WTAE. "The amount of injuries that this dog sustained, if that was meant for his handler ... he may not have [survived]."

Image source: WTAE-TV

Indeed one officer sustained a minor stab wound to his shoulder and two others suffered knee, leg and arm injuries during the scuffle with Rush, who 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.

Police said Rush also will face charges of aggravated assault, burglary, possessing instruments of crime, disarming a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest.

News of Rocco's actions and passing have touched the many in the city. One officer injured in the scuffle told WTAE that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose foundation gives grants to K-9 units nationwide, has already been in touch.

For Rocco, his last days were spent exhibiting the same spirit he always displayed on the job.

"He fought hard for almost two days straight," Compton told WTAE. "He fought as hard here as he fought out on the field. It was a great loss for the city of Pittsburgh."

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