Parents spared jail after driving through flood that killed three children

Judge Timothy Wright’s decision was influenced by the parent’s other children who asked if their mom and dad could stay home

Jade Bremner
Saturday 29 January 2022 14:42
No jail time for Arizona couple whose children and niece drowned at Tonto Basin
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The Arizona parents whose three children were killed when the family drove through a flood in Tonto Creek were spared prison on Thursday, and were instead given five years of probation.

Daniel Rawlings, 38, had pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse. Lacey Rawlings, 34, pleaded guilty to seven counts of child abuse.

Judge Timothy Wright’s decision was influenced in the Gila County courtroom by the parent’s other children, who walked up to the podium and asked the judge if their parents could stay home with them.

“I love everything about my parents,” said 12-year-old Nelly Rawlings.

“My life wouldn’t be the same without them,” said Dallan Rawlings, 13.

Nelly said her mom was her favourite person. While her dad was a hard-working man who wants the best for his family.

The Rawlings ignored signs and barricades to warn motorists not to cross the water, and drove the family into Tonto Creek the day after Thanksgiving in 2019 during a flood. Their actions killed 5-year-old Colby and 6-year-old Willa, and their cousin, 5-year-old Austin. Four of the children in the car were rescued, but three could not be saved.

The family had crossed the creek in a military-style car on their way back home from celebrating with extended family. Their son had pleaded with them to go into the water again, as it was “fun”, the court heard via an audio recording of Lacey Rawlings. They drove into another area of the creek but the vehicle became submerged.

The community and other family members supported the Rawlings in their case, stating that losing children was punishment enough, and their other children deserve stability. “They deserve two healthy parents who can advocate and support them emotionally,” said Lauren Johnston, the mom of one of the children who died. “I want Daniel and Lacey to know that I do forgive them. I will never understand, but I forgive you for taking my daughter from me.”

Kathryn Mahady, the Lacey attorney, said: “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.”

The parents could have collectively served 100 years in prison for their guilty pleas.

Gila County is building a bridge over Tonto Creek to help prevent fatalities, more than eight people have died crossing the creek since the 1990s.

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