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Murder-suicide in Joshua Tree: 'He tried to save her the only way he could,' family says

The family of a woman found dead in Joshua Tree National Park reportedly said investigators believe her boyfriend may have killed her in a “sympathetic murder-suicide” after she suffered a head injury.

Joseph Orbeso, 22, shot and killed his girlfriend, Rachel Nguyen, 20, and then turned the gun on himself, according to a news release Friday from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Morongo Basin station. Investigators recovered a handgun at the scene, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said.

On Monday, as family members prepared for Nguyen's memorial service, they reflected on her "endearing nature" and tendency to keep exploring through life.

Mong Ha Le, her aunt, said though her niece was "a quiet sort," she traveled widely, taking advantage of her mother's timeshare ownership and documenting visits to Vietnam, the beaches of Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Hong Kong and Hawaii.

Within family circles, Nguyen answered to the nickname "Diem My" and she was always "very sweet, yet really a tomboy. As a child, I gave her a doll and she told me she didn't play with dolls. She much preferred video games so we got her a Wii" system.

Still, in the days leading to Nguyen's 20th birthday, she had a crush on a guy and when she suggested that he join her for hiking to celebrate, he turned out to be busy. "He told her to go with Joseph instead, he would see her later," Le said, adding that Orbeso was not Nguyen's boyfriend.

"She didn't do girly things like other girls and there was no such thing as serious dating," Le said. "With all that has happened, we know that Joseph had a gun because he's a security guard and he most likely brought that with him as protection during their outing.

"This is an accident," Le said. "She had a head injury and he tried to save her the only way he could."

The family came to that conclusion based on conversations with police, she explained.

Another family member, who asked not to be named, said relatives believe Nguyen slipped and fell, hitting her head. Orbeso carefully attended to her as they waited, desperate for water, they speculated. When authorities found the body, they saw that Orbeso had taken some of his clothes to wrap them around her to keep her warm and comfortable "until the moment they felt they had lost hope,” the family member said.

Orbeso and Nguyen were reported missing July 28 after a bed-and-breakfast owner in the Morongo Basin told the Sheriff’s Department they may have gone hiking in the park that morning.

Authorities found the couple’s car near a trailhead the day they went missing and began searching for the two, at first pulling in 250 search and rescue resources, including “aircraft, dog teams, horse teams, and [a] ground team,” who combined spent more than 2,100 hours looking for the couple. In August, they scaled back the search to weekends.

On Sunday, almost three months after they were reported missing, a park ranger found their bodies inside “a steep canyon to the far north of the Maze Loop Trailhead,” according to the Sheriff’s Department’s statement.

“Based on evidence located at the scene, detectives believe Orbeso shot Nguyen, then shot himself. ….Orbeso’s actions [remain] under investigation,” the statement said.

The Sheriff’s Department update comes days after Orbeso’s father, Gilbert Orbeso, publicly identified the pair and authorities said they were found in an “embrace.”

Authorities did not report the gunshot wounds when they announced the couple’s discovery because the coroner’s office had to confirm the injuries and identify both people, which took time because of the condition of the bodies after months in the desert, Bachman said.

When the two were found, their bodies did appear to be interlocked, she said.

A friend of Orbeso’s, Austin Young, told the Orange County Register he believes the couple got lost. “They had a choice of a slow and painful death or a quick death. And they made the choice of a quick death.”

Orbeso’s parents told KMIR-TV that their son carried a registered gun on the trip as protection.

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from a family member.

4 p.m.: This article was updated with interview with victim’s aunt.

12:10 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the gun.

10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Orbeso’s friend.

This article was originally published at 8:55 a.m. Oct. 22.

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