Missing couple in Joshua Tree died in murder-suicide, authorities say

A couple who disappeared in Joshua Tree National Park nearly three months ago died in a murder-suicide, authorities said Friday.

Investigators say Joseph Orbeso, 22, shot and killed his girlfriend, Rachel Nguyen, 20, and then turned the gun on himself, according to a release Friday from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department Morongo Basin station.

Investigators recovered a handgun at the scene, San Bernardino sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said.

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

Authorities found their car near a trailhead that day and began searching for the couple, at first pulling in 250 search and rescue members and 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 the Orange County couple was reported missing, a park ranger found the bodies inside “a steep canyon to the far north of the Maze Loop Trailhead,” according to the sheriff’s statement.

“Based on evidence located at the scene, detectives believe Orbeso shot Nguyen, then shot himself. The investigation into Orbeso’s actions remains under investigation,” the statement said.

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

“I want Joseph to be remembered as a kind, caring and thoughtful person,” his father told the Southern California News Group in an email. “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.”

Authorities did not report the gunshot wounds when they announced the couple’s discovery because the coroner 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.

“The position of their bodies,” she said, “it appeared that they were embracing.”

Family members had been searching for the couple for some time. When the bodies were found, Orbeso's father told local TV station KESQ: “I feel that we have closure, and we know we found them.”

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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UPDATES:

2:24 p.m. This article was updated with information about family search.

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with information from sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman.

This article was originally published at 11:20 a.m.

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