THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Citizen Sleuth Recruited by National Nonprofit Helping Families of the Missing
Stacy Koester plans to hone skills to help find missing Kenyan nursing student
- Published In: Criminal Justice
- Last Updated: Apr 04, 2023
Stacy Koester poses in one of the shirts she created, along with posters, yard signs, car magnets and hats, to raise awareness for Irene Gakwa who has been missing since February 2022. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
GILLETTE, Wyo.–A year ago, Stacy Koester never expected a Facebook post would change her life. The 39-year-old wife and mother of three teenage daughters already had her hands full with her family and job as an office manager at a local tire company.
Now, Koester’s schedule is even more jam-packed: She is poised to begin training to become a private investigator (PI) through the national nonprofit, We Help the Missing (WHTM).
The post in question was a press release from the City of Gillette last May announcing that a Kenyan nursing student had disappeared. Irene Gakwa, 33, had lived in Gillette for less than a year when she disappeared from the home she shared with her fiancé, Nathan Hightman.
Gakwa’s family reported her missing in March 2022. Hightman, who is considered by police to be a “person of interest” in her disappearance, said Gakwa announced she was leaving before exiting into a dark-colored SUV in late February.
Hightman has since pleaded guilty to three felony crimes related to draining Gakwa’s bank account and using her credit without permission. He is currently detained in the Campbell County Detention Center awaiting sentencing.
Gakwa’s story hit a chord with Koester, even though the two had never met. It upset Koester that someone could disappear from the community without a trace. Within weeks of reading the Facebook post, Koester formed a local search group with a handful of other concerned citizens called “Team Irene” and began posting regular videos about Gakwa’s case on her solidermomwy TikTok page.
In addition to leading over 10 local searches, Koester spends much of her free time investigating Gakwa’s disappearance and sharing anything she finds with Gillette police.
She also has become close with Gakwa’s family, who live in Meridian, Idaho and Nairobi, Kenya, and speaks to them nearly every day.
Koester’s doggedness in trying to find Gakwa has not gone unnoticed: We Help the Missing recruited her to train as a private investigator, beginning with Gakwa’s case.
The nonprofit is comprised of volunteers—mostly private investigators from around the country—who regularly help families of the missing free of charge. They create and hang posters, and the organization dispatches private investigators on the ground whenever geographically possible.
Co-founder Dave Wolfskill was impressed with Koester’s budding investigative skills on the Gakwa case. A Hulett rancher and retired sheriff’s deputy, Wolfskill ran his own PI company for about 15 years before officially retiring in 2021.
“She seems to be very passionate,” Wolfskill said of Koester. “I look for the determined ones.”
Koester will be the third volunteer private investigator, including Wolfskill, working with the nonprofit in Wyoming. She didn’t think twice about accepting the challenge.
“My heart has been fully invested in this since day one and will continue to be through the totality of Irene’s case,” Koester wrote in an email to the Wyoming Truth.
Easy, but difficult task
It’s relatively easy to become a private investigator in Wyoming, Wolfskill said. Wyoming is one of five states nationwide that does not require licensure, according to PrivateInvestigatorEdu.org, but is one of two that has licensing requirements at the local level, including in Cheyenne.
Succeeding in the role is the tricky part. A law enforcement background definitely helps with credibility, Wolfskill said, though it’s tough to get started in the private investigation business.
“The idea of attorneys using PIs is not as popular as has been advertised by TV and movies,” Wolfskill said. “I first had to convince my clients they needed a PI, and then convince them that I was the one they needed.”
Like other aspects of life, Wolfskill said success in the field is largely dependent on work ethic and character. Given what he’s seen thus far of Koester, he believes she’s a strong candidate.
Koester, who has a deep respect for law enforcement and turns over everything she unearths in Gakwa’s case, believes there’s a benefit to private investigators working alongside police.
“I am not law enforcement in any way…and any information I uncover, it is my responsibility to turn it over to law enforcement and let them do with it what they are trained to do,” she said. “The benefit of a private citizen compared to law enforcement, is sometimes people are more comfortable speaking with just a regular person just like them as opposed to a person with a badge.”
Koester has found that to be true in Gakwa’s case. Her ability to be empathetic, respect boundaries and relate to people – for example, both Hightman’s family members and Gakwa’s – has enabled her to gain information.
“In Irene’s case, I have spoken to several people who did not want their name involved…respecting that makes people confident in being able to speak to [me],” she said. “I also make sure whoever I speak with knows I am, in fact, not law enforcement, just a volunteer looking for answers to bring a missing person home to their family.”
Koester is confident Gakwa’s case is a good place to start, as she already has invested hundreds of hours conducting research and physically searching the Gillette landscape. She knows Gakwa’s story and circumstances well.
Ultimately, she’s excited to begin training and looks forward to honing her investigative skills to help other families.
She’s seen firsthand the heartache Gakwa’s family has endured, which is intensified by their being so far away from Wyoming.
Said Koester: “My goal is to provide resources and support to families who are struggling through what will be the worst moments of their lives and help take some of the weight off of their shoulders in making sure their missing person stays front and center for attention. I’m good at being loud.”