THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Family of Missing Kenyan Nursing Student Ask Governor and Law Enforcement for Answers

Irene Gakwa’s brother, cousin and local searchers deliver petition on one-year anniversary of her disappearance

The Kenya petition and letter to Gov. Mark Gordon, the Gillette Police Department and City Council call for justice and answers on the one-year anniversary of Irene Gakwa's disappearance. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The brother of a missing Kenyan nursing student marked the one-year anniversary of his sister’s disappearance with a trip to Cheyenne Friday. Kennedy Wainaina flew in from Boise, Idaho to hand deliver a petition to Gov. Mark Gordon, imploring him for help in seeking answers to her whereabouts.

Irene Gakwa, 33, was last seen on a video call with her parents in Kenya on Feb. 24, 2022 and was later reported missing by family on March 20. Gakwa moved to Gillette in July 2021 with her fiancé Nathan Hightman after meeting him on a Craigslist forum in Meridian, Idaho. She’d moved from Kenya in 2019 to be closer to her two older brothers.

Hightman, 39, has been charged with five felonies related to crimes against Gakwa following her disappearance. The alleged crimes include draining her bank account and maxing out her credit card for purchases that included boots and shovel at Walmart for $36.19, according to court documents. Other alleged crimes include deleting her email account and changing her banking password.

Hightman has also been named by police as a “person of interest” in her disappearance. Hightman contends that Gakwa left on her own volition in late February by exiting into a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed into two plastic bags.

Kennedy Wainaina and his cousin Tarisai Githu wait to speak to elected officials in the Wyoming Senate chambers at the capitol building in Cheyenne after delivering a letter to Gov. Mark Gordon. They seek help in getting answers on the one-year anniversary of Irene Gakwa’s disappearance. (Courtesy photo from Kennedy Wainaina)

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is currently out on a $10,000 cash bail, according to court documents. After two continuances, Hightman’s trial has been scheduled for April 3.

Repeated requests for comment have gone unanswered from Hightman and his public defender, Dallas Lamb.

Investigation yields few answers

Police have shared very little information about Gakwa’s case, including the results of the nearly eight-hour search with cadaver dogs of Hightman’s residence on Oct. 13 by the Gillette police and FBI. That day, agents were seen recovering several boxes of evidence – some packed into FedEx boxes – that were sent to the FBI lab for processing.

The search warrants have been sealed in district court and no information is forthcoming as to what evidence initiated the second investigation of the couple’s home.

The FBI laboratory results are still pending, according to Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police.

Wasson said in an email to the Wyoming Truth Friday that there are no updates about Gakwa’s case at this time, but that the investigation is ongoing.

“The Gillette Police Department has and continues to work with prosecutors in the furtherance of Irene’s investigation,” Wasson stated.

He declined to comment on challenges in the case or whether the state will pursue murder charges without a body.

“If the investigation into Irene’s disappearance reveals a crime has occurred and that a specific person has committed a crime, the Gillette Police Department will present its findings to the county attorney,” Wasson said.

County Attorney Nathan Henkes did not return a request for comment on where the case stands. As of Feb. 24, no new court documents have been filed.

Visit to the capitol

Wainaina and his cousin Tarisai Githu arrived on a blustery Friday morning to deliver the petition with nearly 34,000 signatures and letter to Gordon. In part, the letter requests that the Gordon administration “take steps in shedding light on the efforts thus far in the search” for Gakwa.

Gordon’s schedule prevented a meeting with Gakwa’s family, but Wainaina did meet with several local senators and representatives who assured him that they would help. In particular, Wainaina felt reassured after speaking with Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) and Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R- Cheyenne).

“I am very hopeful with Eric and Lynn,” Wainaina told the Wyoming Truth by phone Friday evening. “They said to make sure I followed up with them and sat and listened to us…I feel heard.”

Emotionally, it was a hard day for he and his family, Wainaina said, though he was glad they made the trip.

“It’s a bitter sweet day,” he said. “But it feels good to be doing something. It’s good to see some light.”

Delivery of petitions in Gillette

“Team Irene” members Caitlynn Bloxom (left), Stacy Koester and Melissa Bloxom deliver a petition and letter to the Gillette Police Department on behalf of Irene Gakwa’s family Friday.  (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

In Gillette, local supporters Stacy Koester and Melissa Bloxom delivered the same petition to the Gillette police late Friday afternoon. They met with Wasson, who reiterated that there are no new updates in Gakwa’s case and that he is unable to disclose targeted areas where they might search for the 55-gallon metal drum.

In May, police released a statement asking the public to be on the lookout for a metal drum that may have been burned or abandoned in the county. In the same statement, police also requested information about any sightings of a silver-colored Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates “that may have been seen trespassing on private property or appearing out of place in rural areas of Campbell County.”

The police had declined to comment on the significance of that barrel.

Koester has led nearly a dozen local searches for that drum. She said she was disappointed with the brief, five-minute meeting with Wasson.

“I was really hoping he would give us reassurances on the one-year anniversary of Irene’s disappearance that police were working this case to the best of their abilities, but we got zero,” Koester said.

Search volunteers Heidi Kennedy and Corteney Jones simultaneously delivered the letter to the Gillette City Council.

What we know

Gakwa’s family was surprised to learn that she was living in Wyoming at the time they reported her missing last year. They were under the impression that she had moved to Arizona with a friend.

After the call with her parents in late February, Gakwa’s family received some unusual texts from her phone stating she was moving to Texas. The messages raised alarms with her family, because the texts did not sound like Gakwa wrote them nor were they written in her usual mix of English and her native Swahili language.

In early March, Gakwa’s WhatsApp account and phone number were deleted, according to the family’s timeline.

Hightman provided few answers to the family about Gakwa’s whereabouts, insisting that she’d left Wyoming in February as he told police, Wainaina said. He noted that Hightman has not returned any of Irene’s items to them, including her passport, and has since cut off communication.

Regardless of the lack of answers one year later, Wainaina remains optimistic that they will find Gakwa.

“It’s a moment of hope,” Wainaina said of his trip to Wyoming and reassurances from local elected officials. “It’s looking good. We’re going to find her.”

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