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Parents who pleaded guilty to manslaughter after three children drowned are SPARED jail


Parents who faced manslaughter charges after two of their children and their niece drowned when they took them on ‘joyride’ through a flooded creek have been spared jail and given probation after their children pleaded with a judge not to send them to prison. 

Daniel and Lacey Rawlings, 38 and 34, were sentenced in a Gila County courtroom on Friday to probation and community service. Daniel received 60 months of probation, while Lacey received 48 months. 

‘I want to start by just saying how much I regret the decision we made that day to cross the creek,’ Lacey said through tears in court on Friday. ‘It is a mistake I agonize over every single day.

‘I am so incredibly sorry to everyone involved that day for the loss I can never fix.’

Daniel also spoke in court, saying: ‘I wish every day that I could go back and relive and redo the events of that horrific day. Knowing I was the single cause of the reason why [unintellable] is what I live with every day.’ 

Judge Timothy Wright said he took the Rawlings surviving children’s testimony and community support in his decision not to send the parents to prison, but slammed the parents for ‘failing their children.’ 

‘These defendant failed their children. They failed to protect them, they failed to be adults who said no. Conversely, again, any such leniency the court may exercise today again [are] on behalf of the four surviving victims, these four children have zero fault in this case.’ 

Nelly, 12, and her 13-year-old brother Dallan Rawlings begged Judge Wright to let their parents, who drove them through dangerous floodwaters in Tonto Creek, Arizona, in 2019, stay home with them.

Dozens of supporters stood outside the courtroom in Gila County as Nelly described her father Daniel Rawlings, 38, as a hard-working man and her mother Lacey Rawlings, 34, as her favorite person, telling the court: ‘I love everything about my parents.’ 

She added: ‘My dad is a big part of my life and I’d really love it if he could stay with me.’ 

Dallan also said his life ‘wouldn’t be the same without them.’

Wright said his decision to sentence Daniel to five years of probation and Lacey four years of probation was heavily influenced by the children’s pleas.

He had considered whether prison time for the couple would end in a good outcome for Dallan, Nelly, and their two cousins, who also survived the flooding.

He said: ‘These four children have zero fault in this case, yet they carry the burdens.’ 

Daniel and Lacey with victims Willa Rawlings (second right lower) and Colby (right). They, along with their cousin Austin, five, died after the Rawlings disregarded signs and barricades warning drivers not to cross Tonto Creek

Austin (pictured) was the daughter of Daniel's brother, Jay Rawlings

Austin (pictured) was the daughter of Daniel’s brother, Jay Rawlings

Willa and Colby (pictured) died during the flooding. The family had been together for the Thanksgiving holiday when their oversized truck became stuck in the creek

Willa and Colby (pictured) died during the flooding. The family had been together for the Thanksgiving holiday when their oversized truck became stuck in the creek

Five-year-old Colby and six-year-old Willa, along with their cousin Austin, five, died after the Rawlings disregarded signs and barricades warning drivers not to cross Tonto Creek. 

They were on their way back from a family member’s home and their son wanted to enter the water because he was having fun, Lacey Rawlings said in an interview played in court yesterday.

The couple’s military style vehicle began to sink; the Rawlings and four of the children got out and were rescued but the remaining three were swept away and died. 

Daniel and Lacey Rawlings pictured together. The pair were scheduled to face trial in March, at Gila County Superior Court and would have faced mandatory prison sentences if convicted

Daniel and Lacey Rawlings pictured together. The pair were scheduled to face trial in March, at Gila County Superior Court and would have faced mandatory prison sentences if convicted

Dozens of the couple's supporters stood outside the courthouse with balloons, wearing sweatshirts that said 'Rawlings Strong'

Dozens of the couple’s supporters stood outside the courthouse with balloons, wearing sweatshirts that said ‘Rawlings Strong’

Wright considered the Rawlings’ lack of criminal history, as well as the fact that they were remorseful for their actions.

But he said children didn’t need parents to be their playmates, but protectors.

The Rawlings, who live in the Pinetop-Lakeside community, will also have to do extensive community service.

Daniel Rawlings pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse, receiving five years of probation on each charge to run concurrently.

Lacey Rawlings received four years of probation on seven counts of child abuse, to run concurrently.

The pair were scheduled to face trial in March at Gila County Superior Court and would have faced mandatory prison sentences if convicted.

In 2020, it was reported that Daniel Rawlings allegedly drove around a barrier in order to cross a creek, before his truck got swept away in it.

Five-year-old Colby and six-year-old Willa (pictured), along with their cousin Austin, five, died after the Rawlings disregarded signs and barricades warning drivers not to cross Tonto Creek

Five-year-old Colby and six-year-old Willa (pictured), along with their cousin Austin, five, died after the Rawlings disregarded signs and barricades warning drivers not to cross Tonto Creek

In the car were the couple, along with their four kids and three nieces.

Both Daniel and Lacey escaped from the truck with four children but the couples own five-year-old son, Colby, and six-year-old daughter Willa were killed along with their five-year-old niece Austin.

Austin was the daughter of Daniel’s brother, Jay Rawlings. 

The  survivors in the group were rescued and were airlifted to shore by a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office helicopter.

Officials had said one adult managed to swim to shore, while four children and one adult who were stranded on an island in the creek were airlifted out of the area by rescue crews.

The family had been together for the Thanksgiving holiday when their oversized truck became stuck in the creek.

Both Daniel and Lacey escaped from the truck with four children but the couples own five-year-old son, Colby (pictured) and six-year-old daughter Willa were killed along with their five-year-old niece Austin

Both Daniel and Lacey escaped from the truck with four children but the couples own five-year-old son, Colby (pictured) and six-year-old daughter Willa were killed along with their five-year-old niece Austin

The crossing had been closed and barricaded because of the high water, but the parents allegedly attempted to pass it anyway.

During an interview given in December 2019, the parents said very little about what happened at the creek as it was too painful to recount.

‘I will say one thing. People go around the barricades all the time,’ Daniel said. ‘I’m not justifying my actions one bit, but there could be more done.’

Media coverage of the incident led many to express criticism of Lacey and Daniel for their decision to ignore the barricades – but the parents said they were trying to block those critics out.

‘We don’t have anything to say to them,’ Daniel said. ‘Everybody’s a critic, and they’re keyboard warriors. Those people may not have ever gone through something tragic in their life.’

‘I hope they don’t have to go through something like this and learn what it really feels like,’ Lacey added.

Meteorologist Sean Benedict in Phoenix estimated in the days before the tragedy, up to two inches of rain fell in the area, with some of the runoff coming from snow that fell on nearby peaks.

The region got up to four inches of rain about a week before, Benedict said.

The search for Willa in 2019, when the incident took place as the Rawlings were returning from  a family visit

The search for Willa in 2019, when the incident took place as the Rawlings were returning from  a family visit

Law enforcement and volunteers searched for Willa after the accident. During an interview given in December 2019, the parents said very little about what happened at the creek as it was too painful to recount

Law enforcement and volunteers searched for Willa after the accident. During an interview given in December 2019, the parents said very little about what happened at the creek as it was too painful to recount

Punkin Center and Tonto Creek, Arizona, seen during heavy flooding in late November, 2019

Punkin Center and Tonto Creek, Arizona, seen during heavy flooding in late November, 2019

First responders were pictured in December pulling the family vehicle out of the flooded creek after three children got stuck in the truck that was swept away in flooding on Tonto Creek in 2019

First responders were pictured in December pulling the family vehicle out of the flooded creek after three children got stuck in the truck that was swept away in flooding on Tonto Creek in 2019

Map showing location of Tonto Basin, which is in Tonto National Forest in Arizona

Map showing location of Tonto Basin, which is in Tonto National Forest in Arizona

‘So the grounds were already pretty wet and that probably helped with the runoff,’ Benedict added. 

The Rawlings’ attorneys said the couple didn’t perceive the danger of the flooded creek, which prosecutor Bradley Soos pushed back on.

He said the children’s deaths were caused by a series of bad decisions, and that the Rawlings were familiar with the area from prior visits to family in the area. 

He also pointed out they placed the children into a vehicle that didn’t have enough seatbelts and asked Wright to send Daniel to prison for at least four years. 

He said: ‘Sometimes justice doesn’t feel good. Judge, you can’t engage in this series of bad decisions, reflect on your decision to place these children into this situation and end up killing three people and walk out of the courtroom a free man.

‘That is not justice.’

During an interview given in December, parents Daniel and Lacey said very little about what happened at the creek as it was too painful to recount

During an interview given in December, parents Daniel and Lacey said very little about what happened at the creek as it was too painful to recount

Lacey Rawlings said: ‘Please, just sentence both Daniel and I to probation without any jail time so we can continue to help our children recover and have our family together.’

Austin’s mother Lauren Johnston said that she forgave the Rawlings’ actions and asked Wright to show them mercy and grace, despite the agony she felt in hearing about her daughter.

She said: ‘I hope that if nothing else comes from this avoidable tragedy, that Daniel and Lacey will never stop seeking guidance.’

Dozens of the couple’s supporters stood outside the courthouse with balloons, wearing sweatshirts that said ‘Rawlings Strong.’

The couple’s verdict was cheered and applauded.   



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