THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Friends of Missing Gillette Resident Launch Online Petition Calling for Answers
Family supports efforts in quest for information
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Oct 01, 2022
Chris Munga Gakwa holds a sign at a peaceful protest outside the house his sister, Irene Gakwa, shared with Nathan Hightman in Gillette on July 2. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
GILLETTE, Wyo. – The family of a missing Gillette resident supports an online petition that calls for justice and a concerted effort by police and other state and foreign entities to make her whereabouts known.
Irene Gakwa, 33, has been missing for nearly seven months. The Kenya native moved to Gillette from Idaho in July 2021 with her fiancé, 39-year-old Nathan Hightman, who she met on Craigslist.
She was last seen on a video call with her parents in Kenya in late February and was reported missing on March 20.
The Change.org petition was launched last week by Gathoni Kimuyu in Nairobi, Kenya, a friend of Gakwa’s cousin, according to her older brother, Kennedy Wainaina. As of Friday, over 2,300 people have signed it, including Wainaina and other family members.
It’s been seven months since Gakwa disappeared, prompting friends and family members to release the petition, said Wainaina, who currently lives in Idaho.
“Several people have told us it’s been so long, and we still don’t have answers,” Wainaina said Thursday evening from Kenya, where he is visiting his parents. Initially, he said his communication with local police was good but that “it could be better.”
Now that he is home with his parents, Wainaina understands the agony they endure on a daily basis as they hold out hope that Gakwa will be found.
“It hit me hard being here,” he said. “It’s hard for them to eat and sleep, just hoping to get some information. It’s a place you don’t want to be.”
“Person of interest”
Hightman has been charged with five felonies related to crimes against Gakwa and is considered a “person of interest” in her disappearance, according to the Gillette Police Department. Hightman has declined to answer additional questions from police, and Gakwa is considered to be missing under suspicious circumstances.
For his part, Hightman maintains that Gakwa willingly left the couple’s home in late February, carrying her possessions in two plastic bags and departing in a dark-colored SUV, according to police.
As of Sept. 28, the Gillette Police Department had no updates on Gakwa’s case nor would they confirm whether they are investigating anyone else who may be affiliated with her disappearance.
“Nathan Hightman is still considered a ‘person of interest’ in the department’s investigation into the disappearance of Irene Gakwa,” Brent Wasson, deputy chief of police, stated in an email to the Wyoming Truth. “We have not commented on others associated with the investigation.”
Hightman’s pre-trial conference for the five felonies is scheduled for Nov. 3, with his jury trial tentatively scheduled for Dec. 5.
The felonies include two counts of felony theft, one count of unlawful use of a credit card and two counts involving crimes against computer users, according to court documents.
The theft charges relate to Hightman’s transferring over $3,666 out of Gakwa’s bank account and maxing out her credit card with 80 separate transactions, including the purchase of boots and a shovel, which were later located in his home, court documents state.
The other two charges involve changing her banking password and deleting an email account.
Hightman told police he accessed Gawka’s bank accounts and took the money so that she would be forced to contact him, according to the affidavit filed in this case.
Hightman has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is currently out on a $10,000 bond.
In an earlier text message to the Wyoming Truth, Hightman said that he would like to share his side of the story but was advised by his lawyer not to speak to the media.
If found guilty, each crime carries a penalty of between three to 10 years in prison, a fine of no more than $10,000, or both.
Anyone with information about Irene Gakwa is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at (307) 682-5155.