‘She just couldn’t take it.’ Cause of death released for Yosemite worker forced from her home

·8 min read

Toni Covington lived a fairly isolated life in a rural mobile home park just outside Yosemite National Park’s west entrance.

Her son put out just 16 chairs at her memorial service last month, not expecting all of them to be filled. He was surprised and thankful that double that number came to remember her.

The small community that she did have was taken from her in March, when Yosemite forced her and around a dozen others to leave the El Portal Trailer Park, where she had lived for over 30 years.

The longtime Yosemite worker was found dead March 17 – four days after Yosemite forced her to leave the mobile home she owned without compensation. The 60-year-old died in a rented Yosemite Valley dorm room that she had just moved into.

“It’s like war on poor people,” said one of her El Portal neighbors, Terri Nishimura, another displaced homeowner.

An autopsy recently revealed Covington died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said this month.

Yosemite turned off power to her home and around a dozen others at the El Portal Trailer Park a couple days before she died, citing electrical concerns. Yosemite plans to turn the site into a public and administrative-use campground for recreational vehicles after redoing electrical infrastructure there.

Many of the displaced are longtime Yosemite workers who owned their homes but leased the land beneath. They learned shortly before Christmas that they had 90 days to remove or surrender their homes.

Residents have since been given until June 30 to remove their personal property, but not to live there.

Yosemite to treat mobile homes outside park as abandoned after forcing homeowners to leave

Mobile homes line a quiet street in the El Portal Trailer Park near Yosemite National Park on Sunday, March 13, 2022. Residents are being forced to move by the National Park Service, which owns the land the homes are on.
Mobile homes line a quiet street in the El Portal Trailer Park near Yosemite National Park on Sunday, March 13, 2022. Residents are being forced to move by the National Park Service, which owns the land the homes are on.

Several residents said they haven’t received the political and legal help they had hoped for.

A GoFundMe donation account to pay for legal services for the community was created by one affected trailer park resident, and a change.org petition was made by a former El Portal resident.

Toni Covington’s cause of death in Yosemite Valley

Toni had a 41-year Yosemite career, what began with a summer job she started at age 19. Most recently, she was working at the El Portal Market, operated by Yosemite’s concessionaire, and previously worked at Degnan’s Deli and The Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley.

A young Toni Covington, left, with her siblings and cousins.
A young Toni Covington, left, with her siblings and cousins.

The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office declined to share more about Covington’s cause of death, hypertensive cardiovascular disease. The National Library of Medicine defines that as heart conditions caused by high blood pressure, including coronary artery disease and heart failure. Covington was still listed as Antoinette Binzer, her former formal name, in some records.

Adam Covington said while his mom had some health issues, there’s no doubt in his mind that those issues were greatly exacerbated by the “intense amount of stress” she was under in recent months.

“It was too much for her, and she passed away from it,” Adam said.

He was also upset that his mom was given a dorm on the third floor of an apartment complex that required her to walk up many stairs, but has since learned from a friend that she requested that floor.

Adam shared a pointed message – directed at Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and Mariposa County Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe – during the memorial service he organized for his mom at the community hall in Old El Portal.

“Rosemarie, she was the one who decided to be the public face of this, and Cicely Muldoon is the one who put her name on everything. So, she’s the one who did it, and Rosemarie is the one who justified it,” Adam said of his mother’s displacement, what he sees as leading directly to her death.

Those strong words and her small, no-frills memorial service seemed fitting.

“Her requests to me was that we take her ashes and do something that would bother the Park Service in some way. ... She was saying, ‘Turn them into mud pies and throw them at tourists or something like that,’” Adam recalled with a chuckle.

While he appreciated her feisty sense of humor, her ashes will be laid rest in Ohio, where she grew up. Adam received them earlier this month following her autopsy. He plans to inter them beside his 90-year-old grandmother’s remains when she dies. She’s not ill, just heartbroken, Adam said.

“Nobody ever wants to lose a child before they pass away,” he said.

A childhood photo of Toni Covington, left, with her siblings.
A childhood photo of Toni Covington, left, with her siblings.

Despite Covington feeling hurt about her displacement, she didn’t fight the National Park Service.

“She did not want to make a big fuss about this,” Adam said. “She wanted to take the path of least resistance. She wanted it to go away, because she didn’t want to deal with even more stress. ... She felt that if she had fought it, she would be targeted, and she didn’t want that. She just wanted to stay where she was.”

Covington loved living and working in the Yosemite area. “I’m going to die here before I give it up,” Adam recalled her telling him a week before her passing.

Covington is not the only longtime trailer park homeowner to die since Yosemite told them in December that their housing agreements would be terminated in 90 days. Another died earlier this year while receiving medical care outside the area for health issues, several residents said.

Shortly after the residents were no longer allowed to live in their mobile homes, one of their dogs died of a seizure in March, and in April, longtime resident Nancy Dawson injured her lower back moving large items from her mobile home. She hasn’t been able to work since.

Worker’s son feels threatened as June deadline nears

Those affected said letters signed by Muldoon telling them to leave weren’t legal eviction notices. Still, they did leave, after Yosemite threatened them with six months imprisonment or a $5,000 fine per violation if they decided to live in their homes past March 13.

It’s unclear what will happen if any refuse to surrender their homes. That means handing over ownership to the National Park Service by July 1.

A full closure of the area will begin on that date, and any property left on site “will be treated as abandoned and processed by the National Park Service” in accordance with federal management regulations, Yosemite officials said.

A road closed sign sits at the entrance to the El Portal Trailer Park near Yosemite National Park on Sunday, March 13, 2022. Residents are being force to leave by the National Park Service which owns the land.
A road closed sign sits at the entrance to the El Portal Trailer Park near Yosemite National Park on Sunday, March 13, 2022. Residents are being force to leave by the National Park Service which owns the land.

The fate of Covington’s mobile home and belongings has fallen upon her grieving son.

Adam said a park ranger told him during a recent phone call that if he doesn’t remove her mobile home, Yosemite could take “legal action against the next of kin” if he doesn’t surrender it by June 30.

That discussion was followed by a May 23 call with a higher-ranking park ranger. Adam said he was assured then that Yosemite won’t sue him, but was told it’s now his family’s legal responsibility to surrender or remove the home, “and he brought up lawyers a lot.”

“Basically, they’re forcing us to voluntarily surrender this stuff over in a very, very rapid time limit,” Adam said.

He can’t help but think this is the Park Service’s way of waiving any potential lawsuits by saying, “Well, you surrendered it over, so legally you have no right to it anymore, and you did it ‘voluntarily’ – and I put that in quotations there. If they’re threatening us with a lawsuit in order to switch it over, is it really that voluntary? I wouldn’t think so.”

Adam lives in South Dakota and is planning to use more of his vacation time to return to California in June to continue packing up his mom’s belongings. He did some of that work during his April visit for his mom’s memorial service.

The “legal action” mention came after Adam was told a bear recently broke into his mom’s mobile home. Yosemite officials said park wildlife managers trapped a bear in the trailer park on May 18 and relocated it, but that GPS data from a bear collar shows it returned to the area.

The mobile homes at the trailer park, also known as the El Portal Trailer Court, are too old or large to move – or it would be too expensive to do so, residents said. Roads in either direction have narrowed since the trailer park opened in the 1950s due to a major rock slide and a reconfigured Yosemite entrance along Highway 140 that squeezes through an opening between boulders.

Adam thinks his mom’s older mobile home would fall apart if he tried to have it moved. So, he’s being told he has just one option, to hand it over within a month – to an agency he largely blames for his mom’s death. It’s not a good feeling.

“I’m near certainty here that if she didn’t have to move her entire livelihood, I’d still have my mom here today,” Adam said. “The whole stress of having to move out, having to take your entire 30 years of life and put it into a dorm, absolutely puts a toll on anybody physically. And in her case here, she just couldn’t take it.”

Toni Covington, center back, with her siblings.
Toni Covington, center back, with her siblings.