By the time the bodies of Rachel Nguyen and Joseph Orbeso were discovered in Joshua Tree National Park, the two hadn’t been seen for nearly three months.
They had been reported missing July 28 by the owner of a nearby bed-and-breakfast, who told authorities that the pair had probably gone hiking but never returned to check out.
Their disappearance set off a massive search — involving aircraft, dogs, horses and search-and-rescue workers on foot — in the vast, rugged national park. The day that Nguyen and Orbeso vanished, a park ranger discovered their empty vehicle near the park’s Maze Loop trailhead.
Orbeso’s father threw himself into the search efforts, scouring the rocky landscapes in the unforgiving desert heat for any signs of his son, according to the Desert Sun. Gilbert Orbeso told the newspaper that he had last seen his son on July 26, just before Nguyen had picked him up to go on the trip, which was to celebrate her birthday.
The two, from Orange County, Calif., had dated in the past and remained friends, the father added.
“Everything seems like it’s in slow motion, I think because of the waiting, the anticipation,” Gilbert Orbeso told the newspaper in August. “Going on these searches helps. I can’t just sit around and do nothing.”
Through August and September, there would be nothing else that indicated the pair’s whereabouts. At last, on Oct. 15, a park ranger reported seeing “two deceased persons located inside . . . a steep canyon to the far north of the Maze Loop Trailhead.”
The following morning, investigators went into the canyon by air to retrieve the bodies, which were soon identified as Nguyen, 20, and Orbeso, 22. Both had gunshot wounds, according to a statement from the Morongo Basin Sheriff’s Department.
“Based on evidence located at the scene, detectives believe Orbeso shot Nguyen, then shot himself,” the statement read. “The investigation into Orbeso’s actions remain under investigation.”
The case has left more unanswered questions than answers, and police said they still do not have a motive for why Orbeso would have killed Nguyen — or when, exactly, they died. AllTrails.com describes the Maze Loop as a 4.8-mile loop trail, accessible year-round and rated as “moderate.” Other hiking sites, such as Modern Hiker, describe the Maze Loop as part of a larger route, full of impressive desert vistas and “some of the most secluded rock formations in Joshua Tree.”
In a subsequent update Friday, officials released more details, which hinted that the pair may have been suffering from the elements and from thirst when they died.
“The bodies of Rachel Nguyen and Joseph Orbeso were found under a tree,” the sheriff’s office said. “They had positioned their clothing to cover their lower extremities and protect them from the sun. It appears they had been rationing their food and had no water.”
The gun found near the bodies was registered to Joseph Orbeso, officials said.
Gilbert Orbeso, who was with Joshua Tree Search and Rescue when his son’s body was found, said the two friends had been locked in an embrace when they died. A San Bernardino sheriff’s spokeswoman later confirmed that account.
“I want Joseph to be remembered as a kind, caring and thoughtful person,” Gilbert Orbeso wrote in an email to the San Jose Mercury News. “The way he was found beside Rachel holding her as they were seeking shade under the brush says everything you need to know about him as a man and as a human being. I am proud to be his father and his kindness will live on in me and those who knew him best.”
Nguyen’s family said they believed that Rachel had injured herself and that Orbeso had cared for her — then shot her out of compassion.
“It was explained to us by the investigators on scene, with the circumstances and positioning of the bodies, that they believe this was a sympathetic murder-suicide,” Son Nguyen, Rachel’s uncle, told the Desert Sun. “We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso Family. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the Orbeso Family, and that they will remain in our prayers. We thank God that we’ll be able to give Rachel a proper burial and lay her to rest.”
Son Nguyen told the newspaper that Rachel may have been in distress; her T-shirt had been wrapped around her head like a bandage.
“Until you are in the same situation … you don’t know how you would react,” he told the newspaper.