THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Fiancé of Missing Kenyan Pleads Guilty to Felony, Financial Crimes

Nathan Hightman’s bond revoked, escorted out of courtroom in handcuffs

Nathan Hightman, 39, and public defender Dallas Lamb enter Campbell County District Court, where Hightman pleaded guilty to three felonies related to financial crimes against Irene Gakwa on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo from Desiree Tinoco)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—The fiancé of a missing Kenyan woman pleaded guilty to three of the five felonies related to crimes against her in Campbell County District Court before District Judge James Michael Causey on Tuesday afternoon. As a result, Nathan Hightman’s bond was revoked, and he was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

Hightman, 39, admitted to illegally accessing Irene Gakwa’s checking account and the unauthorized use of her credit card, as well as deleting her email account.

Nathan Hightman, 39, enters Campbell County District Court on March 28 to plead guilty to three felony crimes against his missing fiance. (Courtesy photo from Desiree Tinoco)

Gakwa, 33, has been missing under suspicious circumstances since late February 2022; she  moved from Idaho to Gillette with Hightman in July 2021. She was reported missing by family on March 20, 2022.  Hightman is considered by police to be a “person of interest” in her disappearance.

Last May, Hightman was arrested on five felony charges that include two counts of theft, one count of unlawful use of a credit card and two counts of crimes against intellectual property, according to court documents. 

As part of the plea deal, Hightman pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft for transferring $2,666.46 from Gakwa’s checking account into his Zelle account between March 1 – March 19, 2022, according to an affidavit filed in the case. This includes five $500 transfers and one transfer in the amount of $166.46.

Hightman also admitted to unlawful use of two of Gakwa’s credit cards for 16 separate transactions totaling $3,230.65, including the purchase of a shovel, boots and a pair of pants from Walmart, court documents state.

Both felonies are punishable for up to 10 years in prison, a fine of no more than $10,000, or both.

In addition to these two charges, Hightman also pleaded guilty to deleting Gakwa’s Google email account. This felony is punishable by no more than three years in prison, a fine of up to $3,000, or both.

In exchange for his plea, two of the felonies – allegedly taking $1,000 from Gakwa’s checking account and changing her banking password – will be dropped.

Hightman entered into a “cold plea,” according to Campbell County Attorney Nathan Henkes. This means there’s no sentencing recommendation by either the state or the defense, and each party can argue whatever sentence they see fit.   

As part of his plea, Hightman also will be required to pay restitution for the full value of the money stolen from Gakwa.

Both Henkes and Lamb brushed off media requests for comment, as did Hightman.

Bond revoked

Hightman, who wore a burgundy plaid short-sleeve shirt and khakis, sat next to his public defender, Dallas Lamb, during the court proceedings. He kept his answers brief as he pleaded guilty to the three felonies. In a quiet voice, Hightman admitted to Causey that he did not have authorization to access Gakwa’s bank accounts, credit cards or email account as charged.

“I was not in direct contact with her,” Hightman said.

As a result of Hightman’s guilty plea, Causey revoked his bond, despite Lamb’s argument that Hightman is not a flight risk or a threat to the community. Hightman had been out on a $10,000 cash bond and living in Gillette in the couple’s home since his arrest last year.

Lamb further argued that Hightman was a home owner and new transplant who had not violated the terms of his bond, including abiding by a curfew and not fleeing the jurisdiction, among other requirements.

Henkes, meanwhile, argued that by virtue of pleading guilty to the felonies, Hightman had forfeited the presumption of innocence.

Causey ordered that Hightman remain in the Campbell County Detention Center until  sentencing, which can be anywhere from 75 to 90 days.

If Hightman is sentenced the maximum penalty, he could serve up to 23 years in prison.

Family relieved but not satisfied

Irene Gakwa, 33, has been missing for over a year since moving to Gillette with Hightman in July 2021. Hightman is considered by police to be a “person of interest” in her disappearance. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family) 

Gakwa’s older brother, Kennedy Wainaina, and his partner, Lucinda Anewenah, sat with Gakwa’s sister-in-law Gyoice Abatey in court, along with over 20 local supporters who wore “Where is Irene” T-shirts and hats. The trio drove the more than 1,700-mile round trip from their home in Meridian, Idaho, to attend Tuesday’s proceedings. 

Though the family still has no answers about what happened to Gakwa, watching Hightman be escorted from the courtroom in handcuffs offered a mild sense of relief, they said.

“This is what we were praying for,” Abatey said in the hallway after the hearing. “We don’t have Irene, but we did get a little hope for justice. It’s better than nothing.”

Wainaina agreed: “It’s good to see a little victory.”

He also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from the local community, including local resident Stacy Koester, who has led multiple searches for Gakwa and hosted a handful of fundraisers to support the Gakwa family.

Where is Irene?

Hightman contends that Gakwa left one night in late February 2022 after coming home from dinner. He said she announced she was leaving Gillette, before disappearing into a dark SUV with her belongings packed in two plastic bags, according to court documents.

He told police he has not heard from Gawka since she disappeared.

Public records list Gakwa living at a Texas address since April—two months after she disappeared without a trace. 

Public records link the mortgage and landline for the Texas residence to George Babeti. The Wyoming Truth reached out to Babeti to verify whether Gakwa lives there; he did not respond.

Police have vetted the Texas address, according to Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police, who earlier told the Wyoming Truth that they have not found any connection between Gakwa and the residence. 

Police are likewise waiting for results from a nearly eight-hour investigation by the department and FBI of Hightman’s home in northern Campbell County, Wasson said. The warrants related to the search are sealed.

During the search last October, police were seen carrying several small cardboard boxes and plastic grocery bags from Hightman’s house and at least three cadaver dog handlers were seen entering and exiting the house multiple times. FBI agents also carried in lights and other equipment, and they spent considerable time looking for evidence in the garage.  

Wasson said there are no updates on the case to report at this time, but acknowledged “the missing persons investigation is ongoing.”

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