THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Community Joins Together for Fourth Search to Find Missing Gillette Resident
For some, it’s an opportunity to give back
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Aug 08, 2022
Volunteers on ATVs and foot search over 20 miles of roadways in northern Campbell County Saturday as the search for the missing Kenyan continues. (Courtesy photo from Anne Vigil)
By Jen Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Gillette, Wyo.—Everything is suspect out here. Debris scattered along the roadway that would normally go unseen was suddenly being scrutinized: discarded plastic Sprite bottles, tattered garbage bags, pieces of burnt wood and a faded running shoe flung behind a barbed-wire fence. Even a pile of sun-bleached bones likely belonging to a deer or antelope warranted a second look.
On Saturday, each object was examined by the small search party that continued to look for Irene Gakwa, the 32-year-old Kenyan who disappeared in late February from her home in Gillette.
Gakwa moved to Wyoming from Idaho last year with her 38-year-old fiancé Nathan Hightman. She had been a nursing student at Gillette College and worked as an aide.
Gakwa was reported missing on March 20 by her brothers in Idaho.
Hightman, an unemployed tech worker, is considered a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance, police said. He has been charged with five felonies related to unauthorized use of Gakwa’s debit and credit cards, as well as deleting her email account and changing her bank account password. He made more than a dozen purchases using her account, including boots, a shovel and rain pants.
Hightman has pleaded not guilty to all charges and maintains that Gakwa willingly left the couple’s home in late February, after packing her belongings in two bags and getting into a dark-colored SUV. He declined to speak with the Wyoming Truth on the advice of his lawyer.
Hightman’s pre-trial conference is scheduled for Sept. 1, according to court records.
Since learning about Gakwa, Gillette resident Stacy Koester has led search efforts and become an amateur detective. She reaches out to people in Hightman’s past, shares information with police and informs them of clues that she photographs with GPS location.
Koester, a 39-year-old office manager at GCR Tires and Service, shares her daily updates on her TikTok videos @soldiermomwy.
Saturday’s search was the fourth public effort Koester has organized, though she conducts nightly searches with her small group of dedicated volunteers.
As Koester trudged through chest-high weeds along Hannum Road in Northern Campbell County, she eyed the wall of dark purple clouds forming overhead. Already, the group had been searching for eight hours, often in the rain.
“Maybe we should call it a day,” she called out to Anne Vigil, seated in their four-wheeler. Koester lit a cigarette with a sigh. She assessed the tear in the back of her jeans and other “battle scars” from her numerous falls that day.
On Friday around midnight, another volunteer had held Koester’s belt loops as she dangled six feet over a bridge handrail to investigate what looked like a large, dark box in the water.
“It turned out to be a microwave,” Koester said, laughing.
Admittedly, Koester is obsessed with finding Gakwa. For her, it’s personal. She’s also undaunted by the sheer breadth of 4,761 square miles in the county.
Gillette Police have no updates on the case. They have asked the public for any information about a silver Subaru Crosstrek that may have been seen trespassing on oil locations or rural areas between Feb. 24 and March 20. They also are looking for a red and gray 55-gallon Phillips metal drum.
Along with Koester and Vigil, four other volunteers joined the weekend search. Jess Oaks drove 210 miles from Torrington after connecting with Koester. She knows exactly what Koester is up against: she has spent the past 18 years searching for Renee Yeargain, her former co-worker and friend.
Yeargain’s disappearance bears an eerie similarity to Gakwa’s. Her then-boyfriend told police that Yeargain, a 24-year-old mother of four, left home with her clothing packed in a grocery sack 12 days before their scheduled wedding. Yeargain’s Subaru station wagon was later discovered parked at a rest stop with her purse, keys and cell phone still in the vehicle.
The case remains open and has been handed over to Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI). “This could happen to anyone,” Oaks said, “and these women deserve justice.”
The kindness of strangers
Theresa Charon squinted as she maneuvered her RZR through thick weeds along the road. Her husband, Grant Schlidt, 45, drove in the opposite direction on his four-wheeler to search the ravines.
The couple showed up after seeing a Facebook post about the search. “We had some trouble in the past, and the community really helped us,” Charon said.
Riley, the couple’s 12-year-old son, was badly bitten by a dog three years ago. He has undergone over two dozen surgeries and remains in recovery. They racked up $3 million in medical bills, and while insurance covered the bulk of them, high deductibles and uncovered services left the couple with thousands to pay. Friends and family organized fundraisers to help defray the expense.
Charon, a 46-year-old office worker at MG Oil in Gillette, said they were blown away by the outpouring of community support.
“There were more people we didn’t know than those we did,” she said. “It was humbling, and we want to pay that back.”
Bill Galloway learned about Gakwa Saturday morning from his wife, who suggested that he join the search.
The 71-year-old Wyodak employee lugged a black trash bag full of discarded plastic soda bottles and rusted beer cans.
“I didn’t know [Gakwa], but I wanted to help,” he said. “It’s a shame to think about that happening in our community.”
Calling it a day
The air cooled as dark clouds swirled overhead. Koester jumped back on her 4-wheeler just after 3 p.m. and begrudgingly acknowledged that they should wrap it up for the day. Unlike previous searches, the group did not collect any potential evidence to share with police.
Koester has not set a date for the next group search, though she plans to go out every day this week on her own. Despite the hundreds of hours Koester and her group have invested so far, they have barely put a dent in the terrain still to be searched.
“We’ll just keep at it,” she said. “We’re not giving up.”
Anyone with information about Irene Gakwa is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at (307) 682-5155. Updates and information about future searches can be found on the “Find Irene Gakwa” Facebook page.