Colby, Austin and Willa Rawlings

Parents of Children Killed in Tonto Basin Flooding Scheduled To Be Sentenced

The parents that drove their family into a flooded wash in Tonto Basin which ultimately ended with two of their children and their niece drowning are scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 27.

Mother Lacey Rawlings, 34, has pleaded guilty to seven counts of child abuse and is expected to receive four years of probation under an agreement reached with prosecutors in December.

Father Daniel Rawlings, 38, has his fate up to a Gila County judge. His sentencing could be community service and probation or he could face decades in prison for his guilty pleas to manslaughter and child abuse.

Since 1995, a reported eight people have died while trying to cross the flooded Tonto Creek, which is located approximately 90 miles northeast of Phoenix. The area can be very dangerous as the normally dry washes swell with fast-moving runoff water from Arizona storms.

In 2019, the Rawlings family had spent the Thanksgiving holiday with extended family. Over the years, they crossed that same creek safely many times. On that fateful day, they were returning from a shopping trip. Their large military-style vehicle got stuck in the creek that was raging with water from the intense rain from a recent storm. Daniel Rawlings made the decision to drive through the flooded creek despite it being marked as closed with clearly marked barricades and signs. His attorney, Bruce Griffen, relayed that Rawlings misperceived the danger at a crossing and regrets his decision every day knowing he was responsible for the children’s deaths.

Lacey and Daniel Rawlings and four of the children were able to get out of the vehicle and were rescued. Sadly, the other three children were swept away. The bodies of their son and niece were found about 600 yards to 1,000 yards from the crossing area. Their 6-year-old daughter Willa’s body was found in Roosevelt Lake, about 20 miles south of the area.

Rawlings attorney has requested to the court that the father is sentenced to community service and probation, detailing his devotion to his family, role in the community as a coach and with Boy Scouts and employment with a contracting company he runs.

However, the prosecutor, Brad Soos, said he intends to push for Rawlings to serve time in prison. Rawlings faces a maximum of nearly 100 years in prison on the three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse, though the presumptive sentence is less than half of that.

Gila County is using a $21 million federal grant to build a bridge over Tonto Creek that people use daily to get to their way home, the grocery store, school and the post office, It is a long time coming and one that community is thankful for. The county expects to seek bids next month and start construction on the more than 1,900-foot bridge in October. The project could take up to two years.