This July, Rachel Nguyen and Joseph Orbeso went missing in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The couple entered the park around 6:45 a.m. on July 27 and authorities realized something was amiss when they missed their check-out date the next day. Their car was found near the trailhead of the Maze Loop, but there were no clues regarding Orbeso’s or Nguyen’s whereabouts until late last week, when two bodies found by park personnel on Oct. 15 were identified as the missing hikers.
According to autopsy details released by the National Parks Service, Nguyen appears to have been shot by Orbeso before he shot himself. A gun registered to Orbeso was found near the bodies, which were found embracing each other.
An official from the San Bernardino County Sherriff’s Department spoke with the Desert Sun, telling them that Orbeso and Nguyen were out of water and were rationing food. Given the positioning of their bodies and the signs that they were trying to stave off dehydration (their lower extremities were kept shaded by clothes), they believe the shootings may have been an act of mercy. There were no notes or messages left at the scene:
“There is no indication that he wanted to harm her; that there was any plan for something like this,” Bachman said.
“We’ll probably never know why it happened,” she said. “His motive for doing this, there’s nothing left behind to tell us why.”
Nguyen’s uncle told the Desert Sun that the Nguyen family held no grudge against Orbeso, and described the act as a “sympathetic murder-suicide” because Rachel appeared to have fallen and sustained a serious head injury:
“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. We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso family.”
“Rachel possibly injured herself sliding down a cliff and Joseph went after her and took care of her,” Nguyen said.
Her T-shirt was wrapped around her head like a bandage.
Rachel appeared to have been in distress due to her head injury and with no water, they reached a point where they wanted to ease their pain, Rachel’s uncle said.
“Until you are in the same situation … you don’t know how you would react,” he said.
Orbeso, 22, and Nguyen, who turned 20 the day she went missing, lived in Orange County, and had initially planned to go to Joshua Tree with a larger group. Orbeso’s father worked extensively with search teams and came back to the park every weekend to look for his son. He was in the group that found the bodies, although he didn’t discover them himself. Joshua Tree is over 800,000 acres, and as the Joshua Tree Search & Rescue group noted, the desert terrain is very easy to get lost in:
We are still unsure what happened. In general it is surprisingly easy to get lost. You can take a short hike and lose sight of the road, and, if you didn’t pay attention to what the landmarks look like, in the opposite direction, you could start wandering. People even get lost a short distance from a trail.