THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Colorado Search and Rescue Team joins Gillette Group to Find Missing Kenya

Dog handlers and cadaver dogs lend their expertise to search for Gakwa

Thor, an 18-month-old Bloodhound, was one of three trained search and rescue dogs to join the search for Irene Gakwa in Gillette Nov. 12. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

The search for Irene Gakwa continued over the weekend, nearly a month after law enforcement officials conducted their second search of the house Gakwa shared with her fiancé, 39-year-old Nathan Hightman, to recover evidence related to the Kenyan’s disappearance last winter.

Gakwa, 33, moved to Gillette from Idaho in July 2021 with Hightman, whom police have named a “person of interest” in her disappearance. Hightman has also been charged with five felonies in connection to Gakwa, including allegedly stealing money from her bank accounts and changing her internet passwords.

This ninth group search also follows the granting of a court continuance for Hightman, whose pre-trial conference for those felonies has been rescheduled for early January.

So far, the Gillette Police Department has not released any details following the FBI investigation, only saying that certain items from Hightman’s house were sent off for testing. The warrant leading to the search remains sealed.

Over the past five months, local Gillette resident Stacey Koester and her team of volunteers have been actively searching. In August, Koester connected the Gillette Police Department with a cadaver dog team, which was brought in from Goshen County to follow up on a clue at a local park. Last month, the team did its search perched on horseback and ATVs.

Two-year-old Luna, a trained human remains detection Labahoula, leads handler Nikky Copeland along a road in north Gillette. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

And this weekend, Koester turned to the expertise of three handlers and their dogs, Justice Takes Flight, who traveled from Lafayette, Colo., to sniff out evidence. Koester had reached out to group president, Britney Hartman, after reading about their more than 20 solved missing person cases in Colorado since the group was founded in 2020.

Along with finding missing persons, Justice Takes Flight also assists in bloodhound tracking of missing animals and was instrumental in locating more than a dozen lost and deceased pets from the Marshal fires in Colorado last summer.

Justin Copeland, 43, leads Thor along E. Warlow Drive in Gillette Saturday as part of the on-the-ground search for Irene Gakwa who disappeared eight months ago. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

On Saturday, a small group of local volunteers met Hartman and Nicky and Justin Copeland, fellow members of Justice Takes Flight, and their dogs in a downtown hotel parking lot to discuss strategy.

The group was bundled up in hats and parkas on a bracing 20-degree morning as they blew on their hands to stay warm. Along with the humans was Hartman’s 2-year-old Alaskan Malamute, Yeti, a trained human remains detection (HRD) dog, who sniffed the paved parking lot as if warming up for the search. With Yeti was Thor, an 18-month-old Bloodhound, as well as Luna, a 2-year-old Labahoula, a mix between a Labrador Retriever and a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dog.

Luna, like Yeti, is a trained human remains detection dog, while Thor sticks to scent searches.

The plan for the day was to walk the dogs around the neighborhood in north Gillette where Gakwa resided with Hightman before her disappearance to see what–if any–clues the dogs might indicate for human remains or other scents the dogs could pick up to help piece together the mystery. A subsequent search through the ditches along state highway 14-16 near the Wyodak Power Station was also on the roster.

Two-year-old Luna, a trained human remains detection Labahoula, leads handler Nikky Copeland along a road in north Gillette. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

Strangers helping strangers

Typically, Justice Takes Flight sticks to work closer to home, but Hartman felt compelled to make the 680-mile roundtrip journey after hearing Gakwa’s story.

Like Koester’s close connection with Gakwa’s family members who are scattered between Boise, Idaho, and Nairobi, Kenya, Hartman is likewise the “feet on the ground” for Margie Amaga who lives in Hong Kong. Amaga’s daughter, Jepsy Amaga Kallungi, had been missing for two years before her body was discovered in March 2019 in Colorado Springs. Kallungi’s husband was charged with her murder; his trial is still pending.

“When I heard her [Koester’s] story, I knew I had to come,” Hartman said.

Hartman became interested in searching for missing persons following the murder of her 2-year-old niece by Hartman’s step-sister and brother-in-law; she knows firsthand the vulnerabilities and grief facing families of the missing and deceased.

Hartman decided to start her own nonprofit missing person search group in 2019 as a result of her niece, Kallungi’s case and that of Eric Pracht whose body was found by a search team on a trail off Green Mountain outside Denver after being missing for four years. Hartman, who had been on that search, grew close to Pracht’s family. They gave the 36-year-old permission to name her newly acquired dog “Yeti” in honor of Pracht’s nickname.

Though many people who never met Gakwa have devoted their time searching for her, it’s not uncommon, according to Marki Davis, co-founder and executive director of We Help the Missing, a national nonprofit of private investigators and other volunteers who provide free services to family and friends of the missing.

“There are many strangers that a case gets in their blood and they pour all they have into it,” she told the Wyoming Truth. “I don’t know what to say. Every missing person is someone’s child. We do our best to give help and hope to the loved ones of the missing.”

Stacy Koester, pictured right, who has been leading search efforts for Gakwa, and Gillette volunteer Theresa Charon follow the Colorado team Saturday. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

Searching for scent

Cadaver dogs can be an effective tool in searching for missing and deceased persons, Hartman said, because well-trained dogs have a nearly 95% accuracy rate and can detect human remains up to 15-feet underground and 30 meters underwater. They can detect a fraction of a bone as small as a tooth within 24 hours of death and more than 30 years after a person dies.

Nikky Copeland leashed Luna as the eager pup sniffed the plastic human scent training bag and her nose audibly began sniffing the frosty air. With a jerk of the leash, Luna snuffled the grass as she made a beeline toward Gakwa’s home on the other end of the block.

Copeland, a 32-year-old hairdresser from Denver who now trains her dog and searches for missing people fulltime, walked swiftly behind Luna to keep up.

Copeland specializes in urban searches involving missing people. For this, she doesn’t need the dogs. Instead, she relies on missing person posters and canvassing the downtown interviewing homeless people by giving them baggies full of essentials, like toothpaste, water and other personal hygiene items. This old-fashioned brand of shoe-leather detective work has been wildly successful in locating missing people, she said.

Luna and Thor have been on multiple missing person searches. Both are level 1 certified search and rescue dogs in Weld County, meaning they’ve passed the examination required for dogs in their county – and have a handful of finds under their belts.

On this day, however, they weren’t indicating anything of note near or around the Gakwa’s home nor did they locate any clues that might be helpful for police. Koester was not deterred.

“Whether we find something or not, no searches are wasted,” Koester said. “It shows that we are still here, and we’re still committed to finding Irene and we’re not going to stop until we do.”

Britney Hartman, founder of the Colorado search and rescue group Justice Takes Flight, rests with Yeti in their hotel room after Saturday’s search for Irene Gakwa. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher
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