THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Local Group Uncovers Clues in Seventh Search for Missing Kenyan

Cheyenne ghost chaser joins search as potential new evidence is turned over to police

A heart painted on a tree on the Cam-Plex grounds in Gillette serves as a reminder for Stacy Koester of how much Irene Gakwa is loved and missed. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—A raccoon shot out of a pile of thick brush near Stacy Koester’s feet. She screamed and did a pirouette before toppling onto the dirt mound she’d been climbing. Koester looked up at the two women standing over her and laughed.

“What the heck was that?” she asked, appearing slightly dazed from the fall.

Cheyenne-based paranormal investigator Albert Winkler joins the search with clues garnered from the spirit world. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

With a tired smile, Koester peeled herself off the ground and joined the others searching the thick row of trees and brush in the north corner of Cam-Plex park Saturday morning. This was “Team Irene’s” seventh public group search for Irene Gakwa, the 33-year-old Kenyan who went missing from Gillette in late February after moving to Wyoming with her 39-year-old financé, Nathan Hightman.

Koester leads local search efforts for Gakwa and has catalogued a number of injuries in the past five months while out in the field. This fall was nothing compared to the twisted ankles, black-and-blue feet and a myriad of scratches on her hands and arms she has sustained. Plus she’s ruined three pairs of jeans. 

By the time the search ended, she’d go through another pair of jeans and return home with a badly bruised foot and ankle after the group completed its search on foot, horseback and ATVs.

Luckily, Koester joked, her purple and blue foot will not be visible during her Zoom interview Sunday morning with CBS News. In the past three weeks, she has been interviewed by several national media outlets, including CNN, NBC and NewsNation.   

Plus, the injuries were not in vain, according to Koester. She alerted Gillette police to a few pieces of potential evidence the group found along a road near a coal mine in southern Campbell County.

Koester waved off these and past injuries, though noted with a grin that she should probably learn to be a little more careful.

The search for a barrel

Saturday’s search, like all the others, focused on a tip shared by Gillette Police in May, asking the public to be on the lookout for a gray 55-gallon metal barrel, which may have been burned or abandoned somewhere in the county.

Albert Winkler attempts to reach out to Irene using his “spirit box,” as he walks in the field behind the house she shared with her fiance Nathan Hightman. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

“The Gillette Police Department has not commented on our interest in locating a 55-gallon barrel, aside from our interest in its location,” Brent Wasson, Deputy chief of police, told the Wyoming Truth via email.

Regardless, the barrel remained at the forefront of “Team Irene’s” effort, as volunteers outlined their strategy while gathered in the Sinclair parking lot early Saturday morning. Koester received new information to search along a nexus of roads in southern Campbell County and Cam-Plex park.  

Returning were long-standing group members Heidi and Rusty Kennedy, who have participated in every search. Also back were Corteney Jones, Theresa Charon and her niece Nikole Lawrence, Dee Stotts and about a dozen other Gillette residents.

New to the search was Albert Winkler, a paranormal investigator from Cheyenne. Winkler, who runs “Ghost Hunters of the West,” brought a small notebook filled with potential information he said he received from the spirit world.  

He learned about Gakwa, he said, from the daughter of his boss. Winkler said the process of communicating with the spirit world is hard to explain, but involves working with specialized pieces of equipment to garner information.

Winkler has been doing this work for a decade and acknowledged that many people think he’s a “fruit loop” whenever he mentions paranormal activity.

Written in his notebook are clues like “drum,” “suburb,” “woods” and “33,” indicating Gakwa’s age. He also wondered whether Gakwa was wearing a red shirt when she disappeared. Two residential areas in the county – Antelope Valley and Crestview – came up in his conversations with spirits, he said, so the group added them to the list of search sites. 

Along with his notebook, Winkler carried his “spirit box.” It attempts to communicate with paranormal entities using radio frequency sweeps to generate white noise that feeds spirit entities the energy they need to be heard.

If Gakwa’s spirit were present in the area, Winkler said he’d expect to hear something like “help me” or “stop” to indicate her presence.

A lone teddy bear wedged in a tree along Fairview Road in southern Campbell County is just one of the oddities the group finds on searches. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

After searching the empty field behind Gakwa and Hightman’s house earlier Saturday morning, Winkler’s spirit box turned up nothing but static, leading him to believe she was no longer there.  

Still, Winkler conceded that it’s touchy when communicating in the spirit realm:  he’s dealing with both good spirits who want to help and malevolent ones who want to deter him, he said.

“It’s hard to know for sure that I’m dealing with [Gakwa] directly,” he said, “so what I tried to do is utilize a group of spirits and see if they can give me a proper information or something that can lead me into a direction.”

It doesn’t always pan out, Winkler admitted, but after searching Saturday without success,  he will continue seeking answers. Sometimes there’s a reason why he needs to be there, he noted, and it might be setting him up for something else.

Needle in a haystack

Otherwise, the group relied on searching the tangled web of gravel roads off Fairview Road in southern Campbell County, which was like looking for a needle in a haystack. They slowly trudged on horses and ATVs through the thick grass on the shoulders in search of a gray or rusted barrel.

What the group finds tells its own sordid story, including piles of discarded carpet buried in mud, a deceased dog wrapped in a blanket and a lone white teddy bear wedged between branches in a tree on a deserted corner of scorched, high-desert prairie spreading for miles in any direction. As is typical for the region, the group saw far more antelope than people.

In between, group members speculated on what might have happened to Gakwa—and where the barrel or her remains might be hidden.

“Team Irene” covered nearly 38 miles of roads during their eight-hour search; Koester logged the territory—bright red, blue and orange lines—in an app on her phone. She has no idea what all the lines equate in miles, but it’s safe to say it’s a fraction of the roughly 3 million acres of private and public land throughout Campbell County.  

Despite the bumps and bruises, Koester remained undeterred. She swept the dust and grit off her shoulders as she limped back to her horse to complete the final miles.

“We’re not quitting until we bring [Irene] home,” Koester said. “I made a promise to her family, and I’m a woman of my word.”

Last week, Koester started a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise reward money. As of Sept. 25, the effort had collected $265, as well as a $1,000 donation from Gillette-based Water Systems Drilling. Koester is hopeful that the reward money will encourage more people to search or come forward with information.

Details about future group searches and updates in Gakwa’s case can be found on Koester’s TikTok page @soldiermomwy or the “Find Irene Gakwa” Facebook page.

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

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