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Going in-depth on disappearances in the desert

Karen Devine spoke with Peter Daut about her in-depth report. Check it out for more on missing persons investigations in the desert & what a detective thinks of the rumors of a serial killer in the area:

On the heels of the Gabby Petito missing persons case, the national spotlight led to questions about why some cases get more attention than others. There have been some high-profile missing persons cases in the high desert. 

Most recently, Lauren Cho, the 30-year-old Korean American woman who went missing in Yucca Valley in June

I-team reporter Karen Devine made a trip up to Joshua Tree to speak with San Bernardino County Sheriff's detective Aaron Halloway to find out why he believes certain cases catch the public's eye. The Morongo Valley Sheriff’s Station covers 4,000 square miles of rugged terrain.  Detective Halloway says that part of the county draws an incredible amount of tourists because of Joshua Tree National Park.  

“Sometimes we get people that are uninformed and unprepared before they wander off into the desert to go do what it is they’re seeking to do out here”

- Detective Halloway

He emphasizes there are multiple reasons people go missing.  Some are crime-related, but most people don’t hydrate properly, again don’t prepare for the harsh elements, temperatures can soar past 120 degrees in the summer months.  

“Mental Health is a big one.  Some of the most recent cases we’ve had have dealt with individuals that were suffering a mental health crisis and had gone off into the desert.  Another big one is drug abuse,” says Detective Halloway.

In the past four years, there have been at least three high-profile missing persons cases out of the high desert.  

In June of 2020, 38-year old Erika Lloyd left her Walnut Creek, California home to go camp at Joshua Tree National Park. Her family, on the east coast, was immediately concerned when they lost contact with her after two days.

Erika Lloyd

Her father, Wayne Lloyd, told Devine, after speaking with some of Erika’s friends and co-workers, there was some concern about her mental health.  They filed a missing persons report with Walnut Creek police but, her car was found abandoned in the high desert so that’s when Detective Halloway got involved.

“The thing that made it difficult in that case were the wild theories, the wild stories that were floating around, some of the origins are still not known to this day"

- detective halloway

Because Erika’s story was a mystery and had a lot of intrigue, it got more attention than other missing persons cases.

The family included the local media in an attempt to get her name out there, but social media platforms picked it up and speculation ran rampant. Her parents flew from Baltimore five times to try and get any kind of clue that would help them find their daughter. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and podcasts all picked up the story.  

According to Erika’s father, Wayne, sometimes the information sent them off-track.

“A gentleman had claimed he saw her at the rest stop, the Whitewater rest stop on I-10.  So, instead of searching in Twentynine Palms, we flipped all the searching down on I-10, from Brawley all the way to Palm Springs and all the way up to the eastern side of LA.”

Detective Halloway says a sensational story full of speculation and intrigue is one of the top reasons a case becomes more high profile. Ultimately, Erika’s remains were found six months after she went missing by hikers in Wonder Valley, close to where her car had been found. Foul play was ruled out. 

“It seemed like she became detached kind of from reality and was like in a fleeing mood, and so the trip sounded like to some people like it was going to be a vacation to kind of getaway but in reality, she was actually fleeing and running," says Wayne Lloyd. 

According to Detective Halloway, family involvement in the case can also escalate the amount of coverage it gets. He says, “I think some of the cases that are more high profile are honestly because the family raises more flags, to use an old tired expression, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

That rings true in the Rachel Nguyen and Joseph Orbeso case. The pair went for a hike in late July 2017 in Joshua Tree National Park and never made it back to their Airbnb.

Joseph Orbeso and Rachel Nguyen

This prompted a massive search. The family was there every step of the way. Gilbert, Joseph’s father searching with a team of people who helped navigate the park’s rough terrain on the weekends. While he was focused on finding his son, it was taking a toll. 

“So, I took a rest one week, came back the following weekend, and went every weekend until we found them,” said Orbeso.

Joseph and Rachel were found dead three months after they went missing.  They were discovered under a tree in an embrace. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department calls it a “sympathetic murder-suicide.” Authorities saying, the couple ran out of food and water. While it wasn’t the outcome the Orbeso family was hoping for,  Gilbert says finding them felt like a victory and now he actually finds the desert a place of solace.

“I go up there because we found Joseph and Rachel. And now it’s a sense of peace and not 100%.  But a sense of peace.  Because if we didn’t find them, a whole different scenario and whole different speculation would be out," said Orbeso.

Orbeso worked with local media, including with Devine to continue to try and get new information on Joseph and Rachel’s whereabouts.

An I-team story that aired on KESQ News Channel 3, “Joshua Tree Mystery” got the attention of a hiker who had found a pair of sunglasses inside Joshua Tree National Park.  Devine connected the two and they met.  The glasses were not Josephs but where they were found was a location Orbeso decided to start searching from that weekend. He and fellow searchers spotted articles belonging to Orbeso and Nguyen and followed the trail about 500 feet and discovered their bodies.

This past October was the four-year anniversary and Orbeso was back in Joshua Tree visiting the site where he found his son. There is a plaque there as a reminder of two young souls who died way too soon. 

“I’d like Joseph to be remembered as a great kid.  Love him dearly. He networked with a lot of diverse friends, he was independent,” says Orbeso.

The Gabby Petito case began a national debate over racial disparities in news media coverage.  As that was happening, more people picked up the Lauren Cho story out of Yucca Valley.

Her remains were found this past October, not far from the Airbnb where she had been staying. Speculation in that case, according to Halloway, ran rampant. There are still no solid answers in her death. We are still awaiting autopsy and toxicology reports. 

While searching for Cho, Detective Halloway confirmed to Devine that other skeletal remains were found. That is part of an ongoing investigation and he couldn’t comment on it.  But, that led to a question about the rumors that have circulated on social media about a high desert serial killer. Detective Halloway says, he’s aware of those rumors and so far none of the missing persons cases have been found to be connected. 

“The real serial killer is the desert itself"

- Detective halloway
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Karen Devine

Karen Devine is celebrating her 29th year delivering the local news as an anchor and reporter in the Palm Springs television market. Learn more about Karen here.

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