Good friends Joseph Orbeso and Rachel Nguyen, both former students at California State University, Fullerton, were all set for a day’s hiking on the morning of July 27, 2017. They headed off into the rugged desert splendor of the Joshua Tree National Park. With temperatures nudging 100° F, this could be dangerous terrain, despite its beauty.
Twenty-one-year-old Joseph Orbeso was from LA’s Lakewood suburb, where he went to the local high school, before going on to work at a golf course in Long Beach as a security guard. “He’s in very good shape, always carries knives when hiking and is a survivalist,” Orbeso’s good friend Austin Young, 23, later told the The Orange County Register. “He is also the most respectful, honest and straightforward person you will ever meet.”
Rachel Nguyen, 20, was from another LA suburb, Westminster, which is about a 20-minute drive from Lakewood. Nguyen’s aunt, Mong Ha Le, told the Los Angeles Times that her niece was quite the traveler, visiting a range of countries including Mexico, Hong Kong and Thailand. “[She was] very sweet, yet really a tomboy,” Le added. “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.”
Although the two had previously dated, she and Orbeso were now just good friends. In fact, Nguyen had wanted to go hiking at Joshua Tree National Park to celebrate her 20th birthday with another man who she had a crush on. But he’d been otherwise engaged and suggested that she go with Orbeso instead.
The two of them lodged at an Airbnb letting, and then set out early in the morning of 27 July for their hike. They subsequently drove to the Maze Loop trailhead in a red Lexus. After parking at the start of the path, the pair set off into the desert.
Joshua Tree National Park is located about 140 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s a desert wilderness with a variety of spectacular scenery spread over some 800,000 acres. And its natural beauty, as well as the hiking, rock climbing and camping opportunities that it offers, attract some 1.4 million visitors each year. Although the park’s busiest times are from winter to spring, Nguyen and Orbeso were hiking in July, the height of summer.
Take a look on the park’s website and you’ll find some basic advice about being prepared for likely conditions there. The guidelines counsel hikers to carry two gallons of water each for a day’s walking, to avoid too much activity during the hottest time of the day and to wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. They also point out that there is no cellphone reception in the park.
We still don’t actually know how well equipped for their hike Orbeso and Nguyen were, although members of their families described them as seasoned hikers. Nonetheless, a Joshua Tree National Parks spokesman, George Land, later told The Orange County Register, “They weren’t desert rats. This is a whole different world out here.”
It was the owner of their Airbnb rental who subsequently reported that something may be amiss. He contacted the Morongo Basin Sheriff’s Station when Nguyen and Orbeso failed to check out of their lodgings. They’d also left behind various belongings, including an iPad and clothes, and the refrigerator still had food in it. The landlord told the police that he believed the couple had gone hiking in the Joshua Tree National Park.
Park Rangers quickly found Nguyen and Orbeso’s Lexus at the stat of the Maze Loop trail that runs through the north-western part of the park. Footprints led away from the car. “The way the tracks were picked up indicate these people could be walking in circles, which is not uncommon when people are lost,” Land explained.
A major search operation was now launched. And there was still every reason to believe that the couple would be found. The last person to get lost for any length of time in the park was 64-year-old Edward Rosenthal in 2010, and he’d been rescued – emaciated but alive – after six days.
Moreover, the search for Nguyen and Orbeso was no small-scale effort. More than 250 search and rescue personnel – professionals and volunteers – were involved. Horse riders, aircraft and dog teams were also deployed. Over 2,000 hours of searches were carried out during a nine-day period, in fact. Despite this sustained effort, however, the search turned up a blank. There was no sign of the couple.
The hunt for the missing pair wasn’t without its risks for the search parties, either. Indeed, as many as ten personnel were injured on the rough terrain during the early stages of the operation. Then, on August 6 the search was scaled back. Henceforth, the Morongo Search & Rescue team and personnel from the Joshua Tree National Park Service would continue the hunt at weekends only.
We can only imagine the agony that Nguyen and Orbeso’s families and friends were going through. Orbeso’s friend Austin Young told the The Orange County Register, “I haven’t been able to sleep knowing my best friend in the world is out there. I am praying to God he is alive.”
Next, the desperate families offered a $10,000 reward for any information about the whereabouts of their missing children. “We are very hopeful that Joseph and Rachel have left the park of their own accord and are still alive outside the park,” Gilbert Orbeso, Joseph’s father, said at a press conference. “We are hoping and praying that, with a reward and the public’s help, we find answers and closure.”
Park superintendent David Smith also spoke at the press conference, which was held at the Maze Loop trailhead where the couple’s car had been found. “We will continue to do limited searches inside the park,” he told reporters. “But at this point we have definitely moved from the search effort to the recovery effort, which means we believe they perished somewhere inside the park.”
Then, on 16 October, 2017, the news that everyone had dreaded came: two bodies had been found in the park. Gilbert Orbeso was actually with the search party when they came across the corpses of Joseph and Rachel near the Maze Loop trail. They had been discovered in a “remote, steep canyon,” a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman told The Desert Sun. “It’s been a journey,” Gilbert said. “I’m glad we have a conclusion to this journey. We’re just in a different recovery process now.”
It was a few days later when the heartbreaking truth about the lost couple was revealed. Joseph and Rachel’s bodies were locked in a final embrace when they were found. But it wasn’t dehydration or accidental injury that had killed them. Both had died from gunshot wounds, and the scene had the appearance of a murder-suicide.
Family and friends, however, did not believe that Joseph Orbeso was a murderer, or that Rachel Nguyen was a murder victim. Nonetheless, reports stated that there was little doubt that Joseph had pulled the trigger, using a registered pistol he owned. “Rachel possibly injured herself sliding down a cliff, and Joseph went after her and took care of her,” Rachel’s uncle told The Desert Sun.
Speaking to The Orange County Register, Orbeso’s friend Austin Young, said, “They had a choice of a slow and painful death or a quick death. And they made the choice of a quick death.” Rachel’s uncle added, “Her parents … and myself are united, believing in the detective’s accounts of this being a sympathetic murder-suicide. We hold no grudges against Joseph or the Orbeso family.”