Hikers’ Families Say Deaths Motivated By ‘Compassion’

Joseph Orbeso and Rachel Nguyen were missing for three months.

The families of a young couple found dead in an embrace believe they died in a murder-suicide motivated by compassion. 

Joseph Orbeso, 22, and Rachel Nguyen, 20, missing for three months, were discovered in a remote canyon last week in Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, their bodies interlocked in an embrace. Investigators from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department have characterized the deaths as a “murder-suicide.” But they have told relatives the deaths were a “sympathetic murder-suicide,” according to family members.

Detectives believe Orbeso fatally shot Nguyen before turning the gun on himself. A handgun found at the scene was registered to Orbeso, according to a statement from the sheriff’s department.

Though police are continuing to investigate, they believe the Orange County couple may have been lost and desperate in the 800,000-acre park. They were out of water, and were rationing food.

Nguyen may also have been injured in a fall down the canyon; her head was wrapped with a piece of clothing, Nguyen’s uncle, Son Nguyen, told the Desert Sun.

“They found a tree to provide some shade,” he said. The couple was found under the tree; Orbeso’s shirt had been placed over Nguyen’s legs.

Nguyen said that investigators told the family that they believe, “based on the circumstances and the positioning of the body, this was a sympathetic murder-suicide.”

Nguyen added: “Her parents … and myself are united, believing in the detectives’ 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 that they will remain in our prayers..”

A friend of Orbeso, Austin Young, told the Long Beach Press-Telegram: “I think he brought a gun out there to protect Rachel. I think they got lost and were suffering in the 100-degree heat. They had a choice of a slow and painful death or a quick death.”

The pair was reported missing by a bed and breakfast operator July 28 after they left for a hike in the desert in high temperatures and failed to return. They were on the trip to celebrate Nguyen’s birthday. Their bodies were found a week ago by a rescue crew that included Orbeso’s father, Gilbert Orbeso.

“They were side by side lying next to each other and their arms were around each other,” Gilbert Orbeso told KMIR-TV. Orbeso’s mother, Corina Mallari, said she believes the deaths were motivated by “love.”

“I want Joseph to be remembered as a kind, caring and thoughtful person,” Gilbert Orbeso told 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.”

The bodies were found along the park’s Maze Trail, a moderate hike. But the desert park is demanding and rugged. The Joshua Tree website warns hikers to have ample water and to avoid exertion in high temperatures. There’s almost no cell phone service in the park.