On Thursday an Arizona couple who drove around barricades and into flash flood waters in Tonto Creek, resulting in the deaths of three children, learned their fate. A judge sentenced Lacey Rawlings to 48 months probation while Daniel Rawlings received 60 months. They’ll also have to do community service. Gila County Superior Court Judge Timothy Wright says the wishes of Rawlings’ surviving children and others weighed heavily into his decision.
In December, Daniel pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse. Lacey pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse.
“It is a mistake I agonize over every minute, and I will continue to agonize over it for the rest of my life,” Lacey said in court on Thursday afternoon. “I’m so sorry.”
Holding back tears, Lacey spoke about her surviving children.
“They are my world,” she said. “My kids are the reason I get out of bed every single day. My kids are the reason I found a way to move on. They deserve a happy life. They deserve a mother who tries her absolute hardest to give them everything they need.”
Then Daniel took the stand and read a prepared statement.
“I wish every day that I could go back and relive and redo the events of that horrific day,” he said. “I wish could take that trauma and carry it myself. I wish I could take everybody’s pain and bottle it up and hold it myself because nobody deserves to endure pain that I have caused them
More than 100 people gathered Thursday to support the couple who were charged with involuntary manslaughter after the outing resulted in the drowning deaths of their two children and niece.
Inside the courtroom, the prosecution had Austin’s grandma, aunt, and mother read emotional statements.
“Austin, Colby, and Willa are not the ones suffering,” said Lauren Johnston, Austin’s mother. “The hard part is seeing your surviving children struggle, struggling with every aspect of life for the foreseeable future, hearing their accounts of this traumatic event day after day and desperately searching for the right words to say – mom, why did this happen? Mommy, is this someone’s fault? Mommy, my body was so cold, I couldn’t even swim because the water was so freezing.”
Daniel and Lacey didn’t show much emotion for the first part of the hearing. However, Lacey broke down into tears when Johnston looked at them and said, “I want Daniel and Lacey to know that I do forgive you for taking my daughter from me. I will never understand, but I forgive you for taking my daughter from me and our family.”
Austin’s grandmother Lynn Morey also provided a statement to the court. “Because all children are our children, I’m asking this court to send an appropriate message to tell all adults… the message is that it’s not OK for children to make life-altering choices when it comes to their safety. The message that it will not be tolerated for any adult, not even once to ignore a pool without a fence, car ride without a child restraint, boats without proper lifejackets on board, or a rain-swollen creek with a closed no crossing sign in front of it. This message needs to resonate throughout this entire state, so similar tragedies are not repeated because children are God’s gift to us and we have to take care of them,” Morey said.
During the hearing, prosecutors played an audio recording of Lacey’s interview with a Gila County Sheriff’s detective. It revealed why the couple chose to cross the flooded creek successfully twice at Punkin Center earlier in the day and why they decided to do it a third time.
Lacey said they initially took the kids because “it was raining and heated up the jacuzzi, so we were going to go get a canopy to put over the jacuzzi so we could sit in the jacuzzi.” She explained after that, they went to a second store “to get board games and the kids candy.”
“We’re going home, and this is when the kids start asking dad please, dad please, just do it one more time… instead of turning around and going back to Punkin Center, (detective finishes sentence) he went to Bar X? (Lacey) Yes.”
Judge Wright said on Thursday 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 the Rawlings’ other two children and two nieces who survived the flooding.
“These four children have zero fault in this case, yet they carry the burdens,” Wright said. Prosecutor Bradley Soos had asked for some prison time. He pushed back on the idea that the Rawlings simply misperceived the danger in driving through a flooded wash, instead saying that a series of bad decisions by the couple led to the children’s deaths.
SOURCES: AZ Family