GILA COUNTY, Ariz. — An Arizona couple whose two children and niece drowned after they drove through a flooded wash was sentenced Thursday to supervised probation.
Daniel Rawlings, whose two children and 5-year-old niece died in the 2019 incident, pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse. His wife, Lacey, will receive probation in exchange for pleading guilty to child abuse.
Daniel was originally charged with seven counts of child abuse and three counts of manslaughter, according to the Arizona Supreme Court site. Lacey was charged with seven counts of child abuse.
Gila County Superior Court Judge Tim Wright sentenced Daniel to 60 months of supervised probation, despite having the option to send him to prison. Lacey was sentenced to 48 months of probation.
Many relatives and friends of the couple begged the judge not to send Daniel to prison by vouching for his upstanding character and contributions to the community.
The children -- Colby, Willa, and Austin -- were killed after they got swept away when Daniel's military-style vehicle became stuck in a flooded Tonto Creek. Nine people were in the truck at the time of the incident.
It took two weeks to recover the body of one of those children.
The Gila County Attorney's Office said the parents had already crossed over the wash and were nearly home when they decided to cross over again because the "kids were having fun."
Judge Wright acknowledged how reckless it was for the parents to voluntarily put the children in danger by driving through the water "for fun," yet decided that imprisoning Daniel would cause harm to his other children.
Parents need to be parents and not playmates, the judge said Thursday.
Bradley Soos, a prosecutor with the Gila County Attorney's Office, said the actions of the defendants negligently disregarded the dangers of driving around floodwaters.
"This was avoidable. Easily avoidable," he said.
The prosecutor highlighted how Daniel Rawling's behavior after the incident seemed "bizarre" and questioned the sincerity of his remorse after playing a media clip of Daniel claiming other motorists often drove around safety barriers.
"That sounds like fingerpointing to me," Soos added.
During Thursday's court hearing, Daniel said he takes responsibility for the events of that day and wishes he could go back in time and change his actions.
"I am tremendously sorry to the many people I have caused pain," Daniel said.
Work on a long-sought bridge that might have prevented the incident is slated to start construction in March. The construction coincided with the planned trial date for Daniel and Lacey before they agreed to a plea deal.
"The fact this bridge is finally going to happen is a profound godsend for all of us down here," said Randy Roberson, a videographer who was one of the hundreds of volunteers who searched the waters for the children.
"The real tragedy is ... what happened with these kids. That just can't be fixed. That's a horrible thing."