Murder-suicide of missing couple in Joshua Tree brings grief, questions from family and friends

Family and friends said they were stunned by revelations that a couple who disappeared in Joshua Tree National Park nearly three months ago died in a murder-suicide.

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 they may have gone hiking in the park that morning.

In a statement released Friday, the Nguyen family said that the news was troubling but that they also accept it.

“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. We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso Family,” said the statement, according to the Orange County Register. “We thank God that we’ll be able to give Rachel a proper burial and lay her to rest.”

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 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.”

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.”

Austin Young, a friend of Orbeso’s, told the Long Beach Press-Telegram that he was trying to get his head around what happened.

“They had a choice of a slow and painful death or a quick death,” he said. “And they made the choice of a quick death.”

sonali.kohli@latimes.com | Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli

shelby.grad@latimes.com | Twitter: @shelbygrad

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