THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Local Search Group Gathers to Hear Family Stories About Missing Gillette Woman

Irene Gakwa’s family members say hope is all they have left

Community members who have helped search for Irene Gakwa listen as her family members share their memories of her at The Local in Gillette on Oct. 27. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—The family is not sleeping, and all of their emotions are up in the air, Chris Munga told the group gathered at a local coffee shop in downtown Gillette. Munga’s sister, Irene Gakwa, 33, has been missing since late February.

Irene Gakwa’s older brother Chris Munga thanks the searchers and community of Gillette via Zoom from his home in Meridian, Idaho. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

Munga spoke to the roughly dozen group members from his home in Meridian, Idaho via Zoom from a large computer screen propped on the table in The Local .

“Thank you for all you are doing for us as a family,” Munga said. “God bless you.”

Thursday night’s public event was an opportunity for community members to hear Gakwa’s story and was organized by Stacy Koester. Koester, along with three other local residents –  Heidi Kennedy, Melissa Bloxom and Lacey Ayers – formed a search group in June after learning that the Kenya native had gone missing. Since then, eight group searches, including a police-led search with cadaver dogs, have been conducted. Koester also searches many nights on her own.

Gakwa, a nursing student, moved to Idaho in 2019 from her home in Nairobi, Kenya to be closer to her two brothers. She met her fiancé, 39-year-old Nathan Hightman on a Craigslist forum, and the couple lived together for about a year before moving to Gillette in summer 2021.

Hightman has since been charged with five felonies related to draining Gakwa’s bank account, maxing out her credit card, changing a banking password and deleting an email account. He is also considered by police to be a “person of interest” in her disappearance, though he contends that Gakwa willingly left one night in February with her possessions packed in two plastic bags.

He has pleaded non-guilty to all four charges, and on Oct. 27, was just granted a second continuance by a Campbell County judge for his pre-trial conference on those felonies.

Clinging to hope

It’s the latest decision by the court that has Munga and his family frustrated. They had planned to attend the pretrial conference originally scheduled for next week, but received word on Wednesday not to come because the proceedings had been continued.

Hightman’s new pretrial conference was rescheduled from Nov. 3 to Jan. 4, 2023, with a jury trial tentatively scheduled to begin in early February.

“Every day gets harder and harder,” Munga said, his voice thick with sadness. “How many extensions is [Hightman] going to get? He’s out and enjoying hiding behind closed doors while we are having sleepless nights.”

On screen with Munga were his wife, Gyoice Abatey; older brother Kennedy Wainaiana and his wife Lucinda; and CNN correspondent Faith Karimi, who was the first national journalist to cover Gakwa’s story.

Attendees share tears and laughter with the family as they talk about Irene Gakwa and their frustrations waiting for answers in her February disappearance. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

They, too, were emotional as they tried to explain what the family has endured in the wake of Gakwa’s absence. They spoke about Gakwa’s move to Wyoming and how they hadn’t known anything about it. She told her brothers that the couple was moving to Arizona because she hated the cold. The fact that they moved to an even colder state, where they did not know anyone, still makes no sense to her family, Wainaiana said.

Right now, the family is awaiting updates from the Gillette police following the Oct. 13 search of the couple’s home by the police and FBI. Wainaiana said the family was told that potential evidence from the search was sent to the FBI crime lab.

Gillette Police Department Deputy Chief Brent Wasson confirmed that evidence has been transferred and the department is awaiting additional analysis.

“It’s just the not knowing,” Abatey said. “It’s been really tough on us as a family.”

As the holidays approach, Munga said it’s getting harder to have hope.

“Sometimes I think Irene is just going to show up at my door or give us a call,” he said. “I don’t know… I want to have hope, but it’s getting hard,” he said.

“But that little hope is what we are clinging to now,” Abatey added. “If just somebody comes forward with some little clue that helps us get answers.”

Reward fund grows

Koester has launched a reward fund to encourage people to do just that. Between Gakwa’s family and friends in Idaho, individuals and local Gillette businesses, the fund has now reached just under $14,000 as of Thursday morning.

Irene Gakwa, 33, poses with her brothers Kennedy Wainaiana (left) and Chris Munga at a friend’s home in Idaho before moving to Wyoming. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)

The key is to keep Gakwa’s story in the media and to continue searching the back roads and remote areas in the roughly 4,800 square miles in Campbell County, Koester said.

Koester hosted the event to let the public meet Gakwa’s family and hear their recollections about her.

Through tears, Gakwa’s brothers shared how they had enjoyed getting to know their sister as an adult when she moved to Idaho because they both immigrated at 18 and had only seen their sister in video chats or during visits to Kenya.

“She had a lot of opinions,” Munga joked. “She was definitely daddy’s little girl.”

“It was neat to see her become her own person,” Wainaiana added. “We all her miss her terribly.”

For Koester, it was an emotional night.

“The memories they shared made me laugh, but they also made me cry,” said Koester, who has become close with Gakwa’s family. “My heart breaks for them daily knowing what they are going through.”

Koester reiterated a promise she’s made to the family on multiple occasions: “We won’t stop searching, and we aren’t going anywhere. We are their Gillette family.”

The next group search is scheduled for Nov. 12. Ten volunteers and several bloodhounds from the nonprofit group, Justice Takes Flight, from Lafayette, Colo., will be on hand to lend their expertise.

For more information, see the “Find Irene Gakwa” Facebook page. Anyone interested in joining the search or donating cold weather gear for the searches may contact Koester at (307) 299-6710.

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

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