Parents in Tonto Creek flooding deaths receive probation

Andrea Justice/Arizona Silver Belt Friends and family of Daniel and Lacey Rawlings gathered outside the Gila County Courthouse on Thursday, January 27 to show support for the couple.

A couple indicted on multiple charges, including manslaughter and child abuse, after two of their children and a niece drowned in Tonto Creek floodwaters heard their sentences on Thursday, January 27 in Gila County Superior Court.

After hearing hours of often emotional testimony, Judge Timothy Wright sentenced Daniel Rawlings to five years of supervised probation and 1,000 hours of community supervision. Rawlings’ wife Lacey received four years of supervised probation and 480 hours of community supervision. Wright also ruled that restitution will be held open for 30 days.

On Nov. 29, 2019, Daniel and Lacey Rawlings tried to cross the flooded Bar X Crossing in a truck carrying seven children, driving around a warning barricade posted in the road. The vehicle got stuck in the crossing, and raging waters swept away two of the Rawlingses’ children, 5-year-old Colby and 6-year-old Willa, along with their cousin, 5-yearold Austin Rawlings. The bodies of Colby and Austin were found the next day. After an extensive search involving hundreds of volunteers, Willa’s was recovered on Dec. 13, 2019 in the Indian Point area on the north side of Roosevelt Lake. The couple had already crossed Tonto Creek on their way home when they decided to cross again because “the kids are having fun,” as Lacey Rawlings recalled saying in an interview with a detective the morning after the incident. During Thursday’s sentencing, Gila County Chief Deputy Attorney Bradley Soos played a recording of that interview.

The indictments came in April 2020; three counts of reckless manslaughter and seven of child abuse for Daniel Rawlings, and seven counts of child abuse for Lacey Rawlings. They pleaded not guilty in December 2020, but in December 2021 both accepted plea agreements on all counts.

The couple made “a series of very bad decisions,” said Soos, who asked that Daniel Rawlings receive the minimum term of four years for each manslaughter count. “This is a crime that had tragic consequences. This was no accident,” Soos added.

“Navigating life after losing a child wasn’t actually the hard part for me,” Austin’s mother Lauren Johnston testified. “The hard part is seeing your surviving children struggle.” Still, Johnston asked the court to “please show him (Daniel) grace” for the sake of the Rawlingses’ surviving children.

“I am tremendously sorry to the many people I have caused pain,” said Daniel Rawlings. “I wish I could take that trauma and carry it myself.”

The couple received a good deal of support both in the courtroom, where a number of family and friends testified to their character, and outside the courthouse; hundreds of people gathered there with yellow balloons, yellow ribbons and “Rawlings Strong” signs.

“This case is a tragedy,” Wright said before issuing the sentences. “There’s nothing that can bring back the three children who perished. These defendants failed their children; they failed to be parents who said no."

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