THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Gillette Group Gears up for Next Search as Case Gets National Attention
Fiancé and “person of interest” granted continuance for pre-trial hearing on associated felonies
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Sep 08, 2022
Irene Gakwa, 33, was attending nursing school in Wyoming and working as a part-time caregiver when she went missing in March. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
GILLETTE, Wyo.—The search for Irene Gakwa has gone national after being picked up this week by at least two major news outlets as local organizers in Gillette make plans for their fifth group search on Saturday.
Gakwa has not been seen since late spring after being reported missing by her two older brothers on March 20. The 33-year-old Kenyan native and nursing student moved to Gillette from Idaho last summer with her fiancé Nathan Hightman. Police have named him as a “person of interest” in her disappearance.
The couple met on a dating website shortly after Gakwa moved to Boise in 2019 and lived together for about 18 months before moving to Wyoming.
Hightman, a 38-year-old unemployed tech worker, has been charged with five felonies related to unlawful use of Gakwa’s bank account and credit card, as well as deleting her email account and changing her banking password, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, court documents state.
Thus far, there have been no sightings of Gakwa. Hightman said Gakwa disappeared in a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed into two plastic bags, according to Gillette police.
One Gillette resident, Stacy Koester, has made it her mission to locate Gakwa. Koester is in constant contact with Gakwa’s brothers and other family members. Given the 839-mile distance between Idaho and Wyoming, Koester considers herself the family’s “feet on the ground,” as they’ve only been able to make it to one search.
Koester, a 39-year-old office manager at GCR Tires and Service, has been searching since mid-June, including prior searches with local residents and cadaver dogs. She regularly searches on her own after work each night and provides daily updates on her TikTok videos @soldiermomwy.
“They’re my family now,” Koester told the Wyoming Truth on Wednesday. “We’re not stopping until we bring Irene home.”
Last weekend, Koester and a half-dozen volunteers searched an area of McManamen Park, looking for a gray 55-gallon barrel drum that Hightman reportedly purchased during the period in which Gakwa was reported missing.
An April statement from the Gillette Police Department alerted the public to the barrel and said that Gakwa was possibly taken to a rural area, mine site or oil location between Feb. 24 and March 20. Police 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.
Police have no new updates to share, but say it is an active investigation, according to Lt. Brent Wasson.
Koester said she’s expecting between at least 20 to 30 people for Saturday’s search, a significant increase from prior searches following the national coverage on CNN. Since those stories aired, Koester has also heard from psychics, who weighed in on what might have happened. One psychic told Koester that Gakwa died at the hands of two men, was thrown from a bridge and is potentially buried near a tree or under water.
Speculation aside, Koester declined to reveal where the group will conduct its search this weekend both on foot and on horseback. Those interested in joining are asked to meet at the Sinclair station in Gillette at 7 a.m. and can find more information on the “Where is Irene” Facebook page.
Hightman granted continuance
Hightman’s pre-trial conference for the five felonies had been set for Sept. 1, but he sought and secured a continuance until Nov. 3, with his jury trial tentatively scheduled for Dec. 5.
Hightman requested the continuance based on the fact that he is currently in touch with the Campbell County Attorney’s Office and needed additional time “to determine an appropriate plea agreement,” according to court records.
Hightman also waived his right to a speedy trial.
In May, Hightman was charged with three felonies that include transferring more than $3,600 from Gakwa’s bank account and maxing out her credit card on purchases, including boots and a shovel, which were later located in his home, court documents state. The other two charges involve crimes associated with changing her banking password and deleting an email account.
Hightman told police that he took Gakwa’s money, so she would be forced to contact him, according to the affidavit filed in the case.
In a text exchange with the Wyoming Truth, Hightman said he would like to share his side of the story but had been advised not to speak to the media by his court-appointed lawyer.
If Hightman is 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.