THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Fiancé of Missing Kenyan Sentenced to Prison for Financial and Intellectual Property Crimes

Nathan Hightman received 3 to 6 years for felony crimes against Irene Gakwa

Nathan Hightman was sentenced to three to six years in prison on June 14 for two felony financial crimes related to his missing fiancé, Irene Gakwa. (Courtesy photo from Campbell County Detention Center)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This story has been updated as of June 15, 2023 at 9:30 a.m. MT.

GILLETTE, Wyo.– More than a year after Irene Gakwa mysteriously disappeared, there are no new updates in her case as her fiancé, Nathan Hightman, remains incarcerated for financial crimes against her. 

“The investigation is ongoing, and there is no new information to share,” Brent Wasson, Gillette Deputy Chief of Police, told the Wyoming Truth Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, Campbell County District Judge James Michael Causey sentenced Hightman to three to six years to run concurrently for two felony theft crimes against 33-year-old Gakwa, as well as ordered him to pay restitution of just under $7,000.

Hightman received an additional two to five years of supervised probation to run consecutively to his prison sentence once released.

The sentencing relates to the three felony charges Hightman pleaded guilty to on March 28. The charges included illegally accessing Gakwa’s checking account and the unauthorized use of her credit card in excess of $5,000.

Hightman also pleaded guilty for illegally deleting Gakwa’s Google email account in the wake of her disappearance last year. 

In exchange for Hightman’s guilty plea, a subsequent theft charge and another charge related to changing Gakwa’s banking password were dropped.

Causey revoked Hightman’s $10,000 cash bond upon his guilty plea, ordering Hightman remain in custody until his sentencing. He has served 81 days in jail, which will be credited to his time served.

Irene Gakwa’s family and friends gather outside the Campbell County Courthouse after Nathan Hightman’s sentencing on June 14. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)

Gakwa, 33, has been missing under suspicious circumstances since late February 2022. Hightman is considered by police to be a person of interest in her disappearance, but he has not been charged with any crimes related to her disappearance. He contends that Gakwa exited the house they shared on her own accord, with her belongings packed into two plastic bags, and left in a dark-colored SUV, according to court documents.

Police have searched the couple’s home on two occasions, the most recent a joint search with the Gillette Police Department and the FBI in October 2022. The search warrants and subsequent information about circumstances leading to that search have been sealed.

Court of public opinion

Dressed in an orange jail-issued jumpsuit with both his ankles and wrists in shackles, Hightman stared forward in the front of the courtroom as he sat next to his public defender, Dallas Lamb.

On the opposite side of the courtroom, over a dozen friends and family members of Gakwa, wearing blue “Justice for Irene” T-shirts, filled three rows; other community members were dressed in similar shirts.

Lamb argued Hightman should receive no less than two or more than five years, suspended in favor of three years of supervised probation, for the two financial crimes to run concurrently, as well as no less than one year to three of supervised probation for the crime of deleting Gakwa’s email account.

Citing the results of the pre-sentence investigation (PSI) in which the state parole assessment agreed that supervised probation was a suitable sentence, Lamb told the court Hightman was a good candidate for rehabilitation because he had accepted accountability for his actions.

Lamb further argued Hightman has been under scrutiny by local, national and international media outlets, including the Wyoming Truth, which, he said, is atypical of others accused of these same crimes. At the same time, Lamb stated that his client has been unfairly tried in the “court of public opinion” on social media outlets with many people declaring his guilt and asking that he receive the maximum penalties for his crimes.

This level of negative attention has resulted in local food and taxi services declining to deliver food or give him rides, Lamb said, and Hightman also has been subject to protests outside his home by Gakwa’s supporters. Since being incarcerated in the Campbell County Detention Center, Hightman also has received threats from fellow inmates, including someone declaring a bounty on his head, which has forced him into protective administrative custody, Lamb told the court.

“The court of public opinion is tied up with rumors and allegations or circumstances outside this case,” Lamb said.

Hightman is the victim in this case, Lamb argued, given the amount of scrutiny and attention that have made his client’s “life hell.”

“Probation is appropriate for the crimes he [Hightman] pleaded guilty to,” Lamb said.

Stalking and harassment behaviors

Campbell County Attorney Nathan Henkes told the court that the victim is Irene Gakwa, not Hightman. Henkes further noted Hightman has not taken accountability for his actions, but rather told police he had permission to access Gakwa’s bank account and credit cards, despite Gakwa’s having disappeared before the transactions were made.

Henkes noted that the facts in this case differ from other fraud cases, because Hightman’s actions were neither crimes of opportunity as in other theft cases nor did Hightman act on impulsivity or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Given that Hightman told police he had accessed Gakwa’s finances in order to force her to contact him, Henkes argued that Hightman’s actions constituted harassment and stalking behaviors. Hightman acted intentionally, Henkes said, for “the purpose of exerting power and control over Gakwa to force her to contact him.”

“Intent surrounding this crime is markedly different,” Henkes said, noting Hightman only stopped spending Gakwa’s money after he drained her bank account and maxed out her credit card with over 40 separate transactions.

“It’s a stalking type of behavior to harass Gakwa,” he said.

Henkes also questioned whether or not Hightman is a good candidate for rehabilitation, because he didn’t appear to show accountability for his actions based on his own statements in the pre-sentence investigation.

“There is more to this case,” Henkes added. “It was about power, control and calculation and forcing another person to be dependent on him.”

Henkes concluded that prison time was appropriate given the circumstances, asking the court to use its discretion in determining Hightman’s sentence.

The combined felonies are typically punishable for up to 23 years in prison, a fine of no more than $23,000 or both. However, because Hightman entered a “cold” or “open plea,” both the state and defense were free to argue the sentence with the court making the final decision.

‘It’s something’

Henkes told the Wyoming Truth that he had no opinion on the judge’s sentencing and has no idea whether Hightman plans to appeal. He confirmed Hightman will be transferred from the Campbell County Detention Center to the Wyoming Department of Corrections to serve his term.

Hightman did not respond to media requests for comment. Likewise, Lamb did not respond to an email inquiry about whether or not Hightman plans to appeal the sentence. 

Gakwa’s family, meanwhile, expressed their relief that Hightman will remain behind bars for his crimes.

“It’s a relief,” said Kennedy Wainaina, Gakwa’s older brother, who believes the sentence is fair. “Jail time is good.”

He and the other family members and friends made the 800-mile round trip from Meridian, Idaho, to attend the sentencing.  

Gakwa’s sister-in-law, Gyoice Abatey, also was pleased Hightman will remain behind bars.

“It’s something,” she said, “but we still don’t have Irene.”

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