The revelation that two missing California hikers were found dead in an embrace, the apparent victims of a “sympathetic murder-suicide,” recalls a Romeo-and-Juliet story of two young people whose affection for each other takes a tragic turn.
Although Joseph Orbeso, 22, and Rachel Nguyen, 20, had once dated, according to a friend of Joseph’s, they were not a couple but rather close friends when they set out together on July 27 for a hike in Joshua Tree National Park as a way to celebrate Rachel’s birthday, her aunt, Mong Ha Le, told the Los Angeles Times.
Based on conversations with police, her family concludes that Rachel sustained a head injury on the hike during a slide or fall in a remote canyon, requiring Joseph to care for her.
As the pair’s water and rations began to dwindle while they waited for help that never came, Joseph — who carried his registered handgun as protection in the vast desert preserve — shot Rachel, and then turned the gun on himself, according to a news release from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Rachel’s family has said, “We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso family.”
Here are five things to know about the tragedy:
1. The Two Were Close Friends, But Not a Romantic Couple
Rachel was a widely-traveled adventurer, “very sweet, yet really a tomboy,” Le said. “She didn’t do girly things like other girls and there was no such thing as serious dating.”
A friend of Joseph’s, Austin Young, said the two previously had dated. But Rachel had a crush on another guy who was unavailable when she asked him to join her on the hike to celebrate her birthday.
“He told her to go with Joseph instead, he would see her later,” said Le.
2. The Pair Vanished July 27, Launching an 11-Week Search
The two were reported missing on July 28 when the owner of a bed-and-breakfast where they were registered called the sheriff’s office to say they’d failed to return after departing early on July 27 for a likely hike in the park, leaving their belongings behind.
A ping from Joseph’s phone was last recorded from inside the park about 4 p.m. on July 27.
After receiving the missing-persons report, park rangers found the couple’s unoccupied vehicle near a trail head, according to the sheriff’s office. Joseph and Rachel were nowhere nearby.
A search was organized, with more than 250 search-and-rescue members comprising full-time staff and volunteers looking for nine days, using dog teams, horse teams and aircraft. The terrain was so rough, “more than 10 search personnel suffered injuries while conducting search operations,” said the sheriff’s statement.
On Aug. 6, “after evaluating the continuing risk to personnel versus the reward of finding the couple alive,” the search was scaled back to small weekend teams.
3. The Bodies Were Discovered in an Embrace
Eleven weeks later, on Oct. 15, the bodies of Rachel and Joseph were found under a tree in a steep canyon area north of the park’s Maze Loop Trailhead, an area not accessible by vehicle.
Authorities say the two had used their clothing to cover their lower extremities and protect them from the sun, and “it appears they had been rationing their food and had no water.”
A handgun registered to Joseph was located with the bodies.
Joseph’s father, Gilbert Orbeso, was among those who made the discovery, and said the two bodies were “embracing,” according to local outlet KABC.
A sheriff’s department spokeswoman, Cindy Bachman, confirmed that the bodies appeared interlocked.
“I feel that we have closure and we know we found them,” Joseph’s father said. “That was our main goal, was to find them … Hope they can rest in peace now.”
4. The Pair Died in a ‘Sympathetic Murder-Suicide’
Although the sheriff’s office says authorities who recovered the bodies a day later, on Oct. 16, were continuing to review the circumstances, Rachel’s family said investigators believe the missing hikers died in a “sympathetic murder-suicide,” according to a statement they shared with the Orange County Register.
One of Rachel’s family members, who asked not to be named, said that based on conversations with investigators, they believe Rachel hit her head on a slip or fall, and that Joseph attended to her while the two waited to be rescued, reports the Times.
Evidence at the scene showed that Joseph had wrapped Rachel in some of his clothes for comfort “until the moment they felt they had lost hope,” the relative 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,” said Le, Rachel’s aunt.
“This is an accident,” she said. “She had a head injury and he tried to save her the only way he could.”
5. Rachel’s Family ‘Hold[s] No Grudges’ Against Joseph
Rachel’s family stated publicly that they do not fault Joseph for his alleged actions.
“Her parents … and myself are united, believing in the detective’s accounts of this being a sympathetic murder-suicide,” Rachel’s uncle, Son Nguyen, told The Desert Sun. “We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso family.”
“Rachel possibly injured herself sliding down a cliff and Joseph went after her and took care of her,” he said, adding that Rachel’s T-shirt was wrapped around her head like a bandage and Joseph removed his shirt to cover her legs and protect them from the sun and high heat.
He said investigators believe the pair reached a point where they wanted to ease their own pain due to lack of water and her distress from her injury.
“It was a hot day,” Son Nguyen said. “I wish they had been better prepared. Until you are in the same situation … you don’t know how you would react.”
In its statement, Rachel’s family said: “We extend our heartfelt condolences to the Orbeso family, and that they will remain in our prayers,” adding they “thank God that we’ll be able to give Rachel a proper burial and lay her to rest.”