THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Judge Dismisses Request for Stalking Order by Fiancé of Missing Gillette Resident
Cites lack of evidence that local woman leading searches intends to harass him
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Stacy Koester stands in downtown Gillette Sept. 15 after a judge dismissed a stalking protection order request filed by Nathan Hightman, fiance of Irene Gakwa, who disappeared last spring. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
GILLETTE, Wyo. — A judge dismissed a request for a stalking protective order sought by the fiancé of a missing Gillette resident against a local woman he accused of harassment.
Judge Lynda Bush of Crook County said in a hearing Sept. 15 that Nathan Hightman, 38, failed to meet the burden of proof that 39-year-old Tabitha “Stacy” Koester’s actions were intended to harass him or cause him harm.
The complaint stems from Koester’s daily @wysoldiermom TikTok videos and her initial contacts with Hightman in the wake of the disappearance of his 33-year-old fiancé, Irene Gakwa, last spring.
Gakwa moved to Gillette from Idaho in 2021 with Hightman, who said she left on her own accord in late February, disappearing in a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed in two plastic bags, according to court records. Gakwa’s family reported her missing on March 20.
Police said Hightman is considered a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance. He has also been charged with five felonies related to financial and intellectual property crimes against Gakwa.
Since learning of Gakwa’s disappearance in May, Koester has organized some local residents who hold group searches on weekends and also look for Gakwa on their own after work.
Hightman filed the petition on Sept. 8, asking that Koester stay away from his residence and delete all of her TikTok videos that mention his name.
Hightman alleged in the petition that Koester had posted “personal information on her TikTok account, including his first, middle, last name, date of birth, address, GPS of my house,” along with multiple pictures and videos of his home, according to the petition.
Speaking before a packed courtroom of over 20 Koester supporters, Hightman told Judge Bush that Koester’s actions threatened his safety, though admitted he did not report any of her behavior to police.
He further acknowledged that Koester wasn’t a threat to him physically, but claimed that “fans” of her TikTok channel have made threatening comments to him. Hightman said he personally had not watched the videos but that he’d heard about them from friends and family who found them concerning.
“Her fans have said things that are threatening,” Hightman told the judge, noting that he changed his phone number three times in past few months due to people texting and calling him with the purpose of “pulling information from him.”
Hightman requested that all of Koester’s videos mentioning his name, family or home be deleted and that she stay away from his home.
Koester refuted Hightman’s allegations, insisting that she’s done nothing wrong. She said that her interactions with his family, including his father and stepmother, were initiated by them and that she openly tagged the family in her posts.
Koester further argued that all of the information she had shared with her audience was in the public record and easily found through an internet search or in court documents.
She called five witnesses affiliated with her search efforts, all of whom testified that Koester never shared Hightman’s personal information, including his address or birthday. This reporter also was called to testify and told the court that Koester had not divulged any of Hightman’s personal information and had obtained all information through court documents.
When asked by the judge if she had ever broadcast Hightman’s address in a video, Koester said she could not recall ever having done so. Hightman refuted Koester’s claim, describing to the judge one TikTok video that included both his address and GPS location.
He also alleged that Koester reached out to him through unsolicited texts and phone calls between July 24 and Aug. 6, including a handful of messages from “blocked” or “restricted” numbers, an allegation Koester staunchly refuted.
She admitted to texting Hightman on her own phone number. Koester said she clearly identified herself and her reason for contacting him, but insisted that she never used a restricted number and provided copies of these initial correspondences to the court.
Hightman also cited one of Koester’s TikTok videos, where she said that she hopes Hightman is “terrified.”
Koester admitted to making that comment, explaining she meant that she hopes Hightman is terrified that police will find answers about what happened to Gakwa and that she and her group will continue searching until Gakwa is found.
She further told the court that Hightman’s request for a protective order is an attempt to stop her and her group from searching and sharing information related Hightman called no witnesses to testify.
Failed to meet the burden of proof
In her dismissal of the order, Judge Bush said Hightman failed to meet the burden of proof that stalking occurred per its statute based on the evidence presented.
Judge Bush stated that the intent of these posts and videos in the court’s estimation are not intended to harass Hightman, but rather to provide information and updates on Gakwa’s disappearance. She further advised Hightman that he can refile another petition if has more evidence to present to the court.
Koester said she was pleased by the judge’s ruling.
“I feel like when someone makes false accusations, our court system is fair and did the right thing,” she said following the hearing. “Never once have I made any kind of threat of violence towards that man, nor would I. Our goal is to bring Irene home, and it is very sad that he is doing whatever he can to hinder our efforts. Though I won against Nathan, nobody really wins right now because we don’t have answers as to what happened to Irene.”
Hightman’s pre-trial conference for the five felonies is scheduled for Nov. 3, with his jury trial tentatively scheduled for Dec. 5. 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.