THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Gillette Community Continues Search for Missing Kenyan

Mounted horse and foot search seek clues in mysterious disappearance

Ashley Means, 28, walks the ditch along Highway 14-16 north of Gillette on Saturday looking for clues in the mysterious disappearance of Irene Gakwa who has been missing since March 20. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—Ashley Means heard about Irene Gakwa weeks ago and kept telling herself she should help with the search. Gakwa disappeared from her Gillette home in late February, prompting local resident Stacy Koester to organize and lead group searches beginning in mid-June. 

Melissa Bloxom (left) and Stacy Koester get their horses ready to search for Irene Gakwa early Saturday morning (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

Means saw the post last weekend and helped Koester’s group search a local park on Sept. 3. On Saturday, Means returned to lend a hand.

The 28-year-old custodian for the City of Gillette trudged through waist-high cheatgrass alongside Highway 14-16 in northern Campbell County, looking for any clues that might be traced to Gakwa’s mysterious disappearance. She was behind a group of six riders on horseback, including Shauna Smith and her daughter Trena, who plowed through the thickest sections of grass.

On horseback, the searchers covered more country than on foot, and they had the advantage of height to see into the weeds and grass.

Of primary interest to the group is the 55-gallon gray Phillips steel drum that police say Gakwa’s fiancé, Nathan Hightman, purchased during the period in which Gakwa was reported missing. Hightman has been identified by police as a “person of interest” in her disappearance and has not attended any of the searches.

Police have also requested the public report any sightings of a silver or gray Subaru Crosstrek that may have appeared out of place in rural Campbell County during between late February and March 20 when Gakwa was reported missing by her family.

Means, who is a fan of true crime podcasts and at one point considered becoming a criminal psychologist, said she’s unnerved that someone could go missing from her community. Because Gakwa’s family lives in both Idaho and Kenya, Means said she feels compelled to help the family.

“I can’t imagine what they are going through and how worried they must be,” Means said,  pausing  to examine a rain-soaked cardboard box wedged under a barbed-wire fence.

Up ahead, three of the mounted riders were stopped in the ditch along the highway. One of the horses, a six-year-old thoroughbred, had gotten spooked by the grates of a bridge crossing over the Eagle Butte coal mine and had reared up and spun in circles. Two cars stopped block traffic while the rider got the horse settled down, but these three horses were done for the day, according to Dee Stotts.

Stotts has 27 years of search and rescue experience under her belt. She knows when not to push it.

“This horse is having none of it today,” she said. “We’re going to take her home.”

Means continued walking to catch up with Koester and her crew of riders, stopping to search in culverts and under bridges. By 11 a.m., the group had not turned up any clues. But Means was undeterred.

She’ll be back to continue looking until Gakwa is found, honoring the promise that Koester and her small crew made to the family.

Anyone with information about Irene Gakwa is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at (307) 682-5155.

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