Parents of children killed in Arizona flood to be sentenced

Posted at 7:53 AM, January 27, 2022 and last updated 7:53 PM, July 13, 2023

By FELICIA FONSECA Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — An Arizona couple whose two children and niece drowned when the family drove into a flooded wash are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.

Lacey Rawlings, 34, has pleaded guilty to seven counts of child abuse and will receive four years of probation under an agreement reached with prosecutors in December. A Gila County judge has wide discretion in sentencing Daniel Rawlings, 38. He could be sentenced to community service and probation or to decades in prison for his guilty pleas to manslaughter and child abuse.

The case points to the danger when normally dry washes swell with fast-moving runoff from storms that sweep through Arizona. Since 1995, at least eight people have died trying to cross the flooded Tonto Creek, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northeast of Phoenix.

Attorneys for the Rawlings say it also points to the devastation parents feel when misperceiving those dangers.

The Rawlings had gathered with extended family over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2019. They crossed the creek safely numerous times. On a trip back from shopping, their military-style vehicle got stuck in the raging creek swollen by intense rain from a powerful storm.

Lacey and Daniel Rawlings and four children were able to get out and were rescued. The other three children were swept away. The bodies of their son, Colby, and a niece, Austin, both 5, were found about 600 yards (548 meters) to 1,000 yards (914 meters) from the failed crossing.

The Rawlings, dozens of law enforcement officers and hundreds of volunteers joined the effort to find the couple’s daughter, 6-year-old Willa. Her body was discovered in Roosevelt Lake, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of where she went missing.

Daniel Rawlings drove through the flooded creek despite it being marked as closed with barricades and signs. His attorney, Bruce Griffen, said Rawlings misperceived the danger at a crossing he was unfamiliar with and lives every day knowing he was responsible for the children’s deaths.

Griffen has asked the court to sentence Rawlings to community service and probation, citing his devotion to his family, role in the community as a coach and with Boy Scouts and stable employment with a contracting company he runs.

Dozens of letters have been submitted to the court in support of the Rawlings.

“He does not require prison as punishment, he punishes himself every day,” Griffen wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “What good parent wouldn’t?”

The prosecutor, Brad Soos, said he will push for Rawlings to serve time in prison. Rawlings faces a maximum of nearly 100 years in prison on the three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse, though the presumptive sentence is less than half that.

“The defendant’s action and the harm are so great that it is deserving of a prison sentence,” Soos said Wednesday.

Lacey Rawlings attorney, Kathryn Mahady, said her client takes full responsibility for her role in the children’s deaths. She said the decision will haunt Lacey Rawlings for the rest of her life but her other kids, who are 13 and 12, need her.

“Simply put, for the surviving children to recover as much as possible from the trauma and loss they experienced, it is crucial that Lacey and Daniel remain in the home with the family to continue the family’s hard work of coping with unimaginable grief,” Mahady wrote in court documents.

The Rawlings had been scheduled to go on trial in March in Gila County Superior Court and would have faced mandatory prison sentences if convicted.

Gila County is using a $21 million federal grant to build a bridge over Tonto Creek that people cross daily on their way home, to the grocery store, school and the post office, said the county’s public works director, Steve Sanders.

The county expects to seek bids next month and start construction on the more than 1,900-foot (508-meter) bridge in October. The project could take up to two years.

“It’s a long time coming,” Sanders said.