Service Honors Police Dogs Who Died Just Days Apart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Axel and Rocco, two beloved Long Beach police dogs who died in the same week, were memorialized Thursday afternoon before a crowd of officers, canines and other mourners gathered at the Long Beach Police Academy.

Panting in the hot sun, about 20 police dogs from Long Beach, Orange County and as far away as Pismo Beach sat on mats flanking their officer partners and rows of seated spectators at the service.

The animals marked the close of the service with a symphony of loud barking, tugging at their leads as the 21-gun salute commenced.

"I think they want to go chase bad guys," a boy whispered to himself toward the memorial's end.

"Some people think an animal is just an animal," observed Debbie Lim, 40, her infant nephew asleep in her arms. "But when they serve us, these dogs become a part of the family." Lim works at a fast-food restaurant frequented by many of the K-9 officers.

Because dogs are not known for long attention spans, the double funeral was brief, opening with a Police Department color guard and drummer and including remarks from the department chaplain and the playing of taps.

"It was wonderful, very respectful," said Clarice Mooney, widow of Bill Mooney, the Long Beach police chief who started the canine unit in the city 23 years ago.

The funeral was held near the special cemetery the department and its formidable citizen support group maintain for 30 departed police dogs.

Each deceased service dog has a headstone, in which its cremated remains are entombed should the cemetery need to be moved. That has already happened once, when the Police Academy had to move to make way for the Towne Center shopping complex off the southbound San Gabriel River Freeway.

Rocco and Axel will be laid to rest at the cemetery, where each headstone features a photograph of the dog and its handler. The headstones surround a lawn beside the department's kennels, where the dogs stay while their handlers receive training.

On the night of May 14, Rocco was pursuing a possible burglar at the Museum of Latin American Art. A 2 1/2-year-old Dutch shepherd whose specialty was tracking people by scent, Rocco followed a trail onto the roof. He leaped onto an aluminum awning which collapsed. Then he struck a railing, which broke his back and left him paralyzed. He was euthanized two days later.

Three days later, Axel, a 7-year-old German shepherd, was found dead in the garden of Cpl. Greg Manis, his partner of four years. A veterinarian later determined that Axel had a rare but lethal intestinal disorder.

"My youngest [son] decided to name his tadpole Axel," Manis said, "so his name will live on."

Rocco's death marked only the third time a Long Beach police dog has died in the line of duty.

To lose two police dogs in the same year, much less in the same week, is rare.

"It hit us pretty hard," said Officer Richard Lubchenko, who brought his dog, Jaro, along for the funeral but, because of the withering heat, "tossed him back in the air-conditioned car with a bowl of water."

Along with a large police presence, there were a sizable number of people who just love dogs and felt the loss of the pair.

In what is already a dog-loving town, there is a citizens group called the Long Beach K-9 Officers Assn., which hosted a reception after the funeral. The association was formed after the first time a department dog was killed in the line of duty. The animal, Bondo, was beaten on the head with a pipe wrench. The association was created to replace him and buy more police dogs, said Tom Stewart, an insurance broker who was the group's first president.

The nonprofit organization provides support for active-duty and retired police dogs, with cash or supplies such as food donated by businesses. The group has a paid membership of 350, with another 350 past donors who receive its quarterly newsletter, K9 Collar. The $35 annual dues help pay for the purchase of new police dogs, which can cost $5,500 to $7,000.

Both the cemetery and the support group are unusual, according to canine supervisors at other agencies. "We don't have anything like that specifically for our canines," said Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Charlie Walters.

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