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Dates set for Tonto Basin Bridge construction and Rawlings parents' trial

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Posted at 5:20 PM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-04 21:07:52-04

It was a tragedy that rocked Tonto Basin. In November 2019, three children, all under the age of seven, died after the family vehicle was swept away in floodwaters.

ABC15 has learned the parents of two of those kids are still being charged with multiple counts of manslaughter and child abuse.

The Gila County Attorney's Office says the joint trial for Daniel and Lacey Rawlings is set to begin in January and could last up to four weeks.

The close-knit community of Tonto Basin seems to be torn on the prosecution.

"The county attorney, he has to do what he feels is right. My opinion, as a person, is that family has suffered enough already," said Gila County Supervisor Tim Humphrey.

"There are an awful lot of people that think, 'Man, this family's been through a lot, why do they have to go through this?'" said Randy Roberson.

"But then there's also some that say, 'Well, you know, shouldn't have been in the creek, there needs to be some accountability.'"

If everything stays on schedule, those closing arguments will be likely be made weeks before construction officially begins on the Tonto Creek bridge.

The creek has been flooding for decades.

"There's been a number of days within the past two weeks here where it was impassable and too dangerous to cross," said Roberson, who lives on the east side, and has been dealing with the flooding for decades.

The solution has been evident.

"We've been working on this [bridge] for 17 years," said Supervisor Humphrey.

Even though five people had passed away in the flooding before 2019, the funding and public support, and outcry, for a bridge never seemed to be enough until after November 2019.

"If that was the straw that broke the camel's back, that family gave a lot for that straw," said Humprey, referencing the deaths of Willa, Colby, and Austin Rawlings.

"Hopefully, that will be the last death in that creek because of flooding," he added.

Supervisor Humphrey says Gila County has a lot of interest in bidding on the project. He is hopeful things will move quickly once a contractor is chosen.

There is one thing that could significantly stall the already slow-moving project.

"U.S. Fish and Wildlife say there is this species of birds and lizards and things that that mate in the springtime. So we got to have all our grubbing and stuff done by March," said Humphrey.

"They're concerned about the willow flycatcher. They're concerned about a yellow-billed cuckoo. It could have a big effect on how quickly the project unfolds," said Roberson. "They need to have all the brush cleared from where the construction will take place. If any nests have started that will put a stop to the project till next fall."

"Hopefully by the end of 2022, or the first of 2023, we'll actually be driving on the bridge," said Humphrey.

Whenever the bridge is finalized, most residents will be excited to put the stress of crossing the flooded creek behind them.

"I think it'll be a significant game-changer for the community," said Roberson.

"We're just trying to make this place better and safer," said Humphrey.

Not everyone is in favor of the project. Some have voiced their vocal opposition for years.

The more minuscule backlash stems from the fact that the bridge will also usher in more population growth and economic development. Some in the community want to keep the area as wild, quiet, and rural as possible.