THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Gillette Group Ramps up Efforts to Find Missing Kenyan as Her 33rd Birthday Passes With No Answers

Next group search set for Aug. 6

Gillette resident Stacy Koester is the “feet on the ground” for the Gakwa family. She conducts search parties to find Irene Gakwa, who has been missing for more than five months. (Courtesy photo from Anne Vigil)

By Jen Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—Stacy Koester apologized for her messy car. A squashed can of Bang energy drink and empty plastic water bottle were strewn on the driver’s side floor. A gas receipt was tucked into the center console beside an open box of light blue surgical gloves and half pack of cigarettes. 

Her sporty black Audi is normally spotless, she said, but in recent weeks the car has seen a lot of use. Koester has logged  hundreds of hours scouring the vast countryside in northern Campbell County looking for Irene Gakwa, the missing 33-year-old Kenyan.

Stacy Koester searches a drainage ditch off Wild Horse Creek Road in northern Campbell County. (Courtesy photo from Anne Vigil)

“I’ve put in about 500 miles,” said Koester, 39,  sliding into the driver’s seat for the 15-minute drive to Horse Creek Road, outside of Gillette. This was one of her many scouting treks to locate remote areas for the next group search on August 6—the third in two months.  

Gakwa, who moved to Gillette just over a year ago with her fiancé  Nathan Hightman, was last seen in late February on a video call with her parents in Africa. She had been a nursing student at Gillette College and worked as an aide in an assisted living facility.

Gakwa was reported missing on March 20 by her older brothers, Kennedy Wainaina and Chris Gakwa, both of whom live in Idaho where Irene also resided until moving with Hightman to Wyoming.

Hightman is considered “a person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance, police said. He  has been charged with five felonies related to unlawful use of her bank account and credit card, as well as deleting an email account and changing her banking password.

Chris Gakwa is emotional as he expresses his love for his sister, Irene, at a gathering on her 33rd birthday in Boise, Idaho. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)

Hightman  has pleaded not guilty to all charges and 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. In a text message last Thursday, Hightman told the Wyoming Truth that he wants to share his side of the story, but has been advised by his lawyer not to speak to the media.

The Gillette Police Department continues to investigate the case and seeks information from the public regarding a silver Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates that may have been seen trespassing on private property or in rural areas between Feb. 24 and March 20. Police also are interested in information about a red and gray Phillips 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned or abandoned within the county.

In Search of the Drum

It’s the drum that Koester hopes to track down. On Thursday, after leaving her job as an office manager at GCR Tires and Service in the late afternoon, she tried to cram in as many miles as possible before sun down.

Despite never having met Irene, Koester has become like a family member to Gakwa’s brothers and parents. Since learning about Gakwa’s disappearance, she has galvanized a small, committed group of strangers to search for Gakwa. She also recounts her daily efforts in TikTok videos @soldiermomwy.

If Koester was driven to find Gakwa before, she’s doubled-down on those efforts after participating in a virtual Google call on Gakwa’s 33rd birthday with her family in Idaho. Last week, Gakwa’s  brothers gathered more than 50 people in a local park for the bittersweet occasion.  Friends and family shared their favorite memories of Gakwa, doing their best to laugh through their tears before releasing white balloons into the air in the hope that one day she will be found.  

Koester’s face visibly fell as both brothers spoke about their love for their sister.

 “We don’t have answers,” Chris told the attendees, wiping away his tears. “We love and miss her. We are supposed to be celebrating her 33rd birthday, but we don’t know where she is. 

Koester took that personally as the self-described “feet on the ground” for the family in Wyoming. During the  gathering, Gakwa’s parents thanked Koester and her team for their efforts to locate their daughter.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” Koester said, scanning the sun-scorched ranchland as she drove down Highway 50. “The only thing missing was Irene. Now is the time to ramp up efforts.”

Irene Gakwa’s family and friends convene at an Idaho park on her 33rd birthday. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)

Overcoming Fear of Spiders

Koester’s life has taken a dramatic shift since she rallied behind Gakwa’s family to help police find her. She recruited  three Gillette residents to assist in the effort; they routinely sport “Where is Irene?” T-shirts, and their banners and signs line the highways and major streets through town. 

No longer can Koester or the other volunteers drive down a road without looking for the metal drum, suspicious trash bags or discarded clothes. Even the red and black Tupperware tub sitting beneath  a row of mailboxes warrants investigation. Koester veered off the road to peek into it, surprised to find a stack of packages that don’t fit into the mailboxes.

Koester laughed. Nothing looks the same anymore.

She and her group are also overcoming their fear of spiders, as they search tunnels and culverts filled with dead antelope, cows or deer. They inspect every bone to make sure it’s not human.

“We’re not quitting until we bring Irene home,” she said.

Anyone with information about Irene Gakwa is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at (307) 682-5155. Updates and information about upcoming searches can be found on the “Find Irene Gakwa” Facebook page.

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