GILA COUNTY — A White Mountain couple faces felony charges in connection with the death of three children that drowned in Tonto Creek last year when Daniel Rawlings, 36, the father and uncle to the children, allegedly attempted to drive across the rain-swollen creek on Nov. 29, 2019.
Daniel Rawlings, a local contractor, is charged with three counts of manslaughter, Class 2 felonies and seven counts of child abuse, Class 3 felonies. His wife Lacey Rawlings is charged with seven counts of child abuse, all Class 3 felonies. The three counts of manslaughter against Daniel arise from the death of three of the children. The other seven counts of child abuse are based on the prosecutors’ belief that the couple “recklessly permitted (the children) to be placed in a situation where the person or health of a child is endangered,” according to the complaint.
On Nov. 29, Daniel reportedly drove a large, military-style vehicle around ‘road-closed’ barricades and into the flooded creek at the Bar X Crossing with his wife and seven children as passengers, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. The vehicle got stuck in the rising waters and three of the children were swept downstream. Rawlings’ son and daughter Colby, 5, and Willa, 6, and their cousin, Austin Rawlings, 5, drowned. Austin was Daniel’s bother’s child.
On Nov. 30, searchers found the bodies of Colby and Austin. Willa’s body was found Dec. 13 in Roosevelt Lake.
The case came on for a hearing last Monday in the Gila County Superior Court, sitting in Globe. Judge Timothy M. Wright is assigned to this case. The Rawlings were not physically present, but the attorney for Lacey Rawlings, Kathryn G. Mahady of the Flagstaff firm of Aspey, Watkins & Diesel, PLLC appeared by phone. Daniel is represented by Flagstaff lawyer Bruce S. Griffin of the Griffen & Stevens Law Firm, PLLC. The State of Arizona is represented by Chief Deputy Gila County Attorney Bradley M. Soos.
The court setting was originally a preliminary hearing, which has been set and re-set a number of times. A preliminary hearing happens after a prosecutor charges a defendant with a felony. The law says that because felonies are serious crimes, another set of eyes must examine the prosecutor’s evidence to confirm that there is probable cause to bring the charges. Sometimes a grand jury makes that determination by handing up an indictment, or as in this case, a judge reviews the evidence at such a hearing; the choice is the prosecutor’s. In the Rawlings case, the county attorney did not impanel a grand jury, possibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the prosecutor brought the charges and the case was set to the preliminary hearing, all a very normal process.
That’s when the legal fight started. If the state was going to produce witnesses at the hearing, the defense wanted the complete police reports, supplements and anything else the state has “within 7 days of the preliminary hearing,” said Griffin in an April 20 motion. The materials are needed so the defense could properly examine or cross examine the witnesses, Griffin urged. Sometimes, complete reports and supplements haven’t even been finished yet by law enforcement, in this case, by the GCSO. Griffen wrote that the prosecutors have the material but are “unprofessionally withholding” it.
So the Rawlings asked the court to “compel” the state to hand over those materials before the hearing, originally set for April 17. The state objected to that, arguing that court rules do not explicitly require that, that under court rules, their obligation for disclosure doesn’t kick in until the arraignment, a proceeding which occurs after the preliminary hearing. Besides, the state argued, the materials in this case are “voluminous.”
Judge Wright agreed with the defense and ordered the disclosure of the materials. The state cried foul and promptly appealed Wright’s order to the Arizona Court of Appeals, through a process called a “special action,” an unusual type of appeal that happens before a final decision on a case is made. The Arizona Court of Appeals doesn’t have to hear a special action, and in this case, the appeals court refused to hear it. Not to be flummoxed, the state then appealed the Court of Appeals’ refusal to the Arizona Supreme Court. That action is still pending.
When a party brings a special action, the case stops until the higher courts can sort it out. That is what happened in this case. In fact, the case is “stayed” until Dec. 31, “or if the Supreme Court Denies Special Action Relief,” wrote Judge Wright on August 14.
But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing going on in the case in Gila County. In fact, on August 18, the state asked the court to revoke Daniel’s release and to hold him in jail until the trial. At their very first court hearing, the Rawlings were released pending trial under certain conditions. In its August 18 motion, the state alleges that Daniel has been in contact with the niece and or nephew who survived the tragedy, whom the state say are victims of the child abuse; therefore, he should be taken into custody. The state urges that “No contact with the victims is a standard release condition,” and Rawlings broke that condition.
Not so fast, said defense counsel Griffen. The Rawlings haven’t been given written release conditions to sign and acknowledge because that usually happens at the end of a preliminary hearing and as everybody knows, because the state has appealed the order to compel, there hasn’t yet been a preliminary hearing.
The court has set a hearing on the state’s motion to revoke release conditions — that hearing is set for September 21.
Coincidentally, on Sept. 10, Governor Doug Ducey announced that the many years of effort by state and local authorities to build a bridge over Tonto Creek had produced results. According to a press release from Ducey’s office, the federal government has approved a grant in the amount of $21 million for the bridge. He stated: “Last year, Arizona lost three young lives when the creek was experiencing flooding and high waters. With this partnership, we can help ensure no family in Tonto Basin must endure this terrible grief ever again.”