An Arizona couple who purposely drove into floodwaters — resulting in the deaths of two of their kids and their niece — skirted jail after their surviving children pleaded with the judge to let them stay home.
Judge Timothy Wright sentenced Daniel Rawlings, 38, to five years of probation and Lacey Rawlings, 34, to four years of probation on Thursday following dramatic testimony from family members in the Gila County courtroom.
The parents were criminally charged after they plowed their military-style truck through the overflowing Tonto Creek the day after Thanksgiving in 2019, ignoring signs and barricades that warned motorists not to cross.
The car was quickly inundated with water. The couple and four of their children escaped, but two of their kids — 5-year-old Colby, 6-year-old Willa — and their niece, 5-year-old Austin, were swept away and drowned.
Daniel Rawlings, who was driving, had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and child abuse charges, while his wife pleaded guilty to child abuse charges.
Two of their children, Nelly and Dallan Rawlings, ages 12 and 13, took the podium in court Thursday and asked the judge to allow their parents to remain home and raise them.
“I love everything about my parents,” said Nelly.
“My life wouldn’t be the same without them,” added her brother.
Wright said the children’s wishes weighed heavily into his decision not to sentence their parents to prison.
Throwing the couple in prison could negatively impact their surviving two children and the kids’ two cousins, the judge said.
“These four children have zero fault in this case, yet they carry the burdens,” Wright said.
The judge also said he found the couple remorseful, and weighed their lack of criminal history in his decision. In addition to probation, the parents must complete significant community service time.
The Rawlings had passed through the creek on their way back from a family member’s home. The kids pleaded to cross through again, which they did, but this time in a part of the creek they were not familiar with.
The couple’s defense attorney argued that Daniel and Lacey Rawlings had misjudged the possible dangers of entering the floodwaters.
Prosecutor Bradley Soos sought a four-year prison sentence for Daniel Rawlings, arguing that he had exhibited a lack of parental common sense, including putting children in a vehicle without enough seatbelts.
“Sometimes justice doesn’t feel good,” Soos said. 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.”
Austin’s mother, Lauren Johnston, described the pain she felt losing her daughter that day. The loss has been especially difficult for the girl’s twin sister. But she said that she has forgiven the Rawlings, and asked the judge to keep them out of prison.
“I hope that if nothing else comes from this avoidable tragedy, that Daniel and Lacey will never stop seeking guidance,” she said in court.
Lacey Rawlings told the judge that her family is still recovering from the tragedy. She said the family is tormented not only by their loss, but also by the burdens they’ve caused others. Since the incident, they’ve attended counseling and have spent more time together as a family, she 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,” Lacey said.
Outside of the courthouse, more than 100 supporters held signs that read “Rawlings Strong.” They erupted into cheers when they learned that they were spared jail time.
With Post wires