Authorities Suspect Murder-Suicide in Case of Missing Joshua Tree National Park Couple

Joseph Orbeso (left) and Rachel Nguyen (right). (Photo credit: Orbeso and Nguyen families)

The story of two hikers feared lost in Joshua Tree National Park — located approximately 2 hours drive east of Los Angeles — has taken a dark turn this week. Three months after the couple — 22-year-old Joseph Orbeso and 20-year-old Rachel Nguyen — was reported missing after embarking on a trip to the national park for Nguyen’s birthday, two bodies were found in an apparent “embrace” in a remote part of the park.

The couple was reported missing in late July after failing to check out of their AirBnB. Authorities discovered their car at a trail-head at Joshua Tree National Park, which prompted a search-and-rescue operation that spent nearly 2100 hours scouring the park for the missing hikers before scaling back operations in August. Nonetheless, family of the missing hikers never gave up hope that the two would be found.

On Sunday, a park ranger discovered two bodies suspected to be that of Orbeso and Nguyen in a steep canyon north of the park’s Maze Trail Loop. Now, authorities confirm the identities of the bodies and report that autopsy results also suggest that the couple likely died of an apparent murder-suicide.

The view of Joshua Tree National Park, as taken from the Maze Trail Loop. (Photo credit: Flickr / Terry Tyson)

When the bodies were first discovered, Orbeso’s father described the two as interlocked in an apparent “embrace”. Speaking to the Southern California News Group, Gilbert Orbeso said:

“I want Joseph to be remembered as a kind, caring and thoughtful person… 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.

Police have now released new details in the deaths, reporting that a homicide investigation is underway after both bodies had “visible” gunshot wounds. They believe that the couple died after Orbeso shot Nguyen, and then turned the gun on himself.

Authorities have not released a motive for any possible murder-suicide. Currently, it seems possible that the couple — who were not described as experienced hikers — may have chosen to enter into a murder-suicide pact after having gotten lost in the park and running out of food and water. The Hi-Desert Star reports that Orbeso and Nguyen were found without water, and that they appeared to be rationing their remaining food. Their clothes were positioned to cover their upper limbs and they were found under the cover of brush. A firearm registered to Orbeso was found near the bodies. Authorities further say that no note was found by the bodies, nor was their any other evidence suggesting that violence was pre-planned.

Each year, about 160 visitors die during a visit to a national park. Experts say that the risks of visiting a park can be minimized by choosing excursions that match hikers’ experience levels, leaving precise details with loved ones about where you plan to go, packing adequate food and water (and indeed way more water than you think you will need if hiking in the desert), and making sure to include key survival items in your emergency kit such as water purifiers, extra food, maps and GPS, matches, whistles, and knives and multi-purpose tools — even if you are only planning on a short day-hike.

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