FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Nelly and Dallan Rawlings walked up to a podium in a crowded Gila County courtroom and asked a judge to let their parents stay home with them.
Nelly said her dad, Daniel Rawlings, is a hard-working man who wants the best for his family. Her mom, Lacey Rawlings, is her favorite person, she said.
“I love everything about my parents,” said Nelly, who is 12.
“My life wouldn’t be the same without them,” said Dallan, who is 13.
Those statements factored heavily into Judge Timothy Wright’s decision to sentence Daniel Rawlings to five years of probation and Lacey Rawlings to four years of probation Thursday in a case that points to the danger that arises when normally dry washes flood in Arizona, he said.
The children’s two siblings — 5-year-old Colby and 6-year-old Willa — and their cousin, 5-year-old Austin, died after the Rawlings drove the family into Tonto Creek the day after Thanksgiving in 2019. The couple disregarded signs and barricades that told motorists not to cross.
The swollen creek began to swallow the military-style vehicle they were in. The Rawlings and four of the children got out and were rescued. The other three children were swept away and died.
The Rawlings had crossed the creek on their way back to a family member’s home when their son pleaded to enter the water again because he was having fun, Lacey Rawlings said in an interview played in court Thursday. This time, they drove into an unfamiliar part of the creek that was more dangerous.
Wright said children need their parents to be their protectors, not their playmates. Still, he said he struggled with knowing that any sentence he imposed — particularly prison time — would adversely affect Dallan and Nelly, and their two cousins who survived the flooding.
“These four children have zero fault in this case, yet they carry the burdens,” Wright said.
Wright said he also considered the couple’s lack of criminal history, that they were remorseful and accepted responsibility, and the roles they’ve played in the Pinetop-Lakeside community where they live in handing down the sentence. The Rawlings also will have to do extensive community service.
Attorneys for the Rawlings said their clients misperceived the danger of going into the flooded wash.
Prosecutor Bradley Soos pushed back on that idea, saying it was a series of bad decisions that day that led to the children’s deaths. He said the Rawlings were familiar with the creek from previous visits with family in the area and failed to exercise basic parental common sense repeatedly that day. That included placing the children in a vehicle that didn’t have enough seatbelts, he said.
He asked Wright to send Daniel Rawlings to prison for at least four years.
“Sometimes justice doesn’t feel good,” he 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.”
Daniel Rawlings, 38, had pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse. He received five years of probation on each charge, to run concurrently. Lacey Rawlings, 34, received four years of probation on seven counts of child abuse, to run concurrently.
Her sentence was expected but Wright had wide discretion in sentencing Daniel Rawlings.
The day was filled with emotional testimony from friends and family of the Rawlings and the couple themselves. The Rawlings said they are haunted by their decision and apologized for the burdens they caused for others. They’ve sought counseling, spent more time together as a family and face challenges head-on, they 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 Rawlings said.
Austin’s mother, Lauren Johnston, described lying on the floor in agony, initially believing all three of her children in the vehicle had died. When she heard two were safe, she struggled with thoughts of Austin being cold, scared and wondering where her parents were. She said Austin’s death has been particularly hard for the girl’s twin sister.
She said while the Rawlings’ decision robbed her of her ability to raise her child, she forgave them and asked Wright to show them mercy and grace.
“I hope that if nothing else comes from this avoidable tragedy, that Daniel and Lacey will never stop seeking guidance,” she said Thursday.
Outside the courthouse, dozens of people supporting the Rawlings carried yellow balloons, wore sweatshirts that read “Rawlings Strong” and held signs that said “Chin Up Rawlings. We stand with you always.” They cheered and applauded after they learned the Rawlings could return to the community.
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.