Rachel Nguyen, 20, and Joseph Orbeso, 22, had been missing for nearly three months after going hiking in the sprawling desert park in late July. Their disappearance launched an exhaustive search — crews spent more than 2,100 hours scouring the rugged terrain — but their bodies were not found until Oct. 15.
Autopsies found both had gunshot wounds and evidence at the scene led detectives to believe Orbeso shot Nguyen and then himself, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said Friday. The stunning announcement came days after Orbeso’s father, who was with searchers who made the discovery, said the bodies were locked in an embrace.
Authorities told the Orange County Register that there was evidence the pair had been battling the elements: The bodies were under a tree, with items of clothing covering their legs to protect them from the blazing sun. They appeared to have been rationing food and had no water.
Nguyen’s family said investigators told them that based on the circumstances and positioning of the bodies, they believed the two died in a “sympathetic murder-suicide.”
“We extend our heartfelt condolences to the Orbeso family, and that they will remain in our prayers,” they said in a statement.
“We thank God that we’ll be able to give Rachel a proper burial and lay her to rest.”
Orbeso and Nguyen had once dated and he took her to Joshua Tree to celebrate her birthday, his best friend Austin Young told the newspaper.
Orbeso may have had a gun because he worked as a security guard, and was carrying it to protect her.
“I think they got lost and were suffering in 100-degree heat,” Young said.
“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.”
Orbeso’s actions remained under investigation, though his motive may never be known.
“There is nothing left behind to give the investigators or the family any indication of why this happened,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said.