Parents of two hikers whose remains were found last week after months of searching for them in Joshua Tree National Park are still piecing together the final moments of their children’s lives.
On Friday, investigators released details of autopsy reports that showed Joseph Orbeso, 21, and Rachel Nguyen, 20, had died of gunshot wounds – believed a murder-suicide with Orbeso shooting each of them. The investigation continues, officials said.
Nguyen’s family told The Desert Sun on Saturday that this wasn’t a murderous act but rather one 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, said.
Nguyen offered more insight into what investigators said they found.
“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.
“They found a tree to provide some shade,” he said, and Joseph had taken his shirt off and put it over her legs, apparently to protect them from the sun and heat.
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.
It appeared they had been rationing food, but there was no water nearby, San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokeswoman Cynthia Buchman said. Bachman added that there was no indication that Joseph had wanted to harm Rachel.
Orange County residents Orbeso and Nguyen were last seen entering Joshua Tree National Park early on July 27 and were reported missing the next day by the owner of the Airbnb where they had stayed. The couple had missed their checkout time on July 28, but their belongings were still in their room. Nguyen’s car was found later that day near the entrance to the Maze Loop trail.
After weeks of searching, at about 1:50 pm on Oct. 15, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s dispatch center received a call from a Joshua Tree ranger reporting the remains of two deceased people locked in an embrace had been located inside the park.
On Friday, sheriff’s officials released findings from their investigation, including the autopsies, saying both had been shot with a handgun registered to Joseph and that Rachel was shot first before he turned the gun on himself.
Rachel, whose 20th birthday was the day they went missing, was the oldest of two children, was a member of the Girl Scouts and raised in a church-going family, Nguyen said.
She enjoyed hiking, tennis and other activities, was attending California State University, Fullerton and working part-time while also living with her parents in Winchester.
“She was just your average girl trying to make her way through young adulthood,” said Nguyen.
She and Joseph had dated for a short time a couple of years ago and remained friends after they stopped, Nguyen said.
They had been planning the trip to Joshua Tree for about a month, initially as a group hike with some friends, but it wound up being just the two of them, he said.
“It was a hot day,” he said. “I wish they had been better prepared.”
Nguyen said the family is grateful to officials and volunteers with the Joshua Tree Search and Rescue, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, United States Marshals Service and all others involved in the search efforts.
“We’re humbled and grateful for the outpouring of love and support from the public,” Nguyen said. “We thank God that we’ll be able to give Rachel a proper burial and lay her to rest.”
He added: “Her parents … and myself are united, believing in the detective’s accounts of this being a sympathetic murder-suicide. We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso family.”
“We extend our heartfelt condolences to the Orbeso Family, and they will remain in our prayers,” Nguyen said.
Gilbert Orbeso, Joseph’s father, and his family hiked with searchers for 12 days straight when the two were first reported missing. He returned nearly every weekend after to hike with members of the Joshua Tree Search and Rescue.
Orbeso was with the group that discovered the remains on Oct. 15, though off in another area.
“Our families send our deepest condolences,” Orbeso said Saturday. “We are all very fortunate and relieved to have a proper and peaceful memorial service for Joseph and Rachel. God bless both of them and all the people they have touched.”