But Ramona Ewell is also using the apparently heartless theft as an opportunity to celebrate the life of her daughter O’Neill.
“The only person who wouldn’t be upset by all of this would be O’Neill,” Ramona said Saturday. “She’d say something like ‘Ah, Mom. Just let it go. It’s no big deal. Remember my spirit dancing in the light.'”
“O’Neill was such a gift of life,” Ramona says. “She impacted everyone she knew.”
Until just a few weeks ago, a wooden cross and various other personal mementos marked the spot just off Highway 41 where in September 2016 then 20-year-old O’Neill Ewell lost control of the car she was driving and crashed into a tree a few miles north of Coarsegold near Serpa Canyon.
According to witnesses, O’Neil’s 2006 Volkswagen Jetta was traveling at the speed limit when, for unknown reasons, it drifted off the right shoulder and she lost control. The car spun across the highway and then down an embankment before crashing into a tree. CHP at the scene determined O’Neill had likely over-corrected.
O’Neill died at the scene.
A passenger in the car, Haley Phillips, also 20, was seriously injured but survived and was airlifted to Community Regional Medical Center.
Shortly after the accident, a roadside memorial was built alongside a stretch of chain link fencing just across Highway 41 from the accident scene. Friends and family helped maintain the memorial, which included a large red cedarwood cross and a ceramic heart Ramona made inscribed ‘You and me forever.’ There was also a flower wreath with a picture of O’Neill and her only niece and nephew and many other tributes.
Today, just a few scattered remnants of the memorial remain. A plastic silver star has been discarded in the dust and a small bracelet and few tattered ribbons still cling to the chain link.
O’Neill’s memorial disappeared the week before Mother’s Day. Witnesses reportedly saw two people parked next to it putting items into their vehicle.
Friends who had been maintaining the memorial contacted local law enforcement and Caltrans.
Samantha Ewell, O’Neill’s sister-in-law, posted the news to Facebook, pleading for the return of the cross and other items from the memorial.
Her post was met with a flood of sympathy and support, including offers from local carpenters to replace O’Neill’s cross immediately.
Responding to the outpouring from social media, Samantha Ewell wrote: “I would like to thank everyone for their positive feedback and for sharing this post. It truly means a lot to see so many people trying to help us get O’Neill’s cross back.”
“I hope that whoever took down the memorial sees this post and how much it means to the family and puts everything back,” Samantha said.
When she first heard about the memorial’s disappearance, Ramona said she “didn’t quite know how to deal with it. And honestly, I didn’t really want to deal with it.”
“It’ll be three years in September since O’Neill left us and it still seems to me like the accident happened yesterday,” she said.
“O’Neill dedicated herself and her time to so much and so many,” her mother says. “She would have known she was going to leave broken hearts behind.”
Ramona has struggled with PTSD since losing O’Neill and says she still has to avoid the stretch of Highway 41 where the crash happened.
Except for the day of the accident, she has never visited the memorial site. But she says it was comforting to know that people who weren’t able to say good bye to O’Neill were able to visit her memorial and get some closure.”
“The [roadside] memorial was not just for our family,” Ramona said. “So many people loved O’Neill. They’d tell me there’s such a warmth and essence of my daughter there.”
Someone has given her an angel container with dirt from around the roots of the tree that O’Neill’s car crashed into.
O’Neill Marie Ewell didn’t like her very unique name at first, says her mother.
Ramona’s ex-husband and other child, Daniel, who is eight years older than O’Neill, were really into swimming and surfing when O’Neill was born. “We had surf boards in our office and extra room, which would soon be O’Neill’s nursery.”
“When she was younger the name was a little more confusing to her. She said that when she was 18 she was going to change it but then she came to love it as it was part of our family’s story. I actually have pictures of her and her brother at the ocean where she buried Daniel under the sand while wearing her O’Neill wet suit.”
“She left us on the 13th [of September], which was five days before her 21st birthday,” Ramona says. “Although the beautiful cross is missing, her beautiful spirit is not.”
Ramona says she still struggles every day. “There are no words, teachings or writing to assist with learning to live with the spirit of your child’s soul. Faith and love, which my daughter taught me daily, and seeing her through the eyes of my grandchildren, is what feeds the shell of who I am today.”