THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Local Team Resumes Search for Missing Gillette Nursing Student

Volunteers hit the ground again, extending efforts into neighboring county

Stacy Koester investigates a makeshift cross, adorned by a pink plastic flower along a road in LAK Reservoir on Saturday, as she searches for any evidence that might be linked to the mysterious disappearance of Irene Gakwa. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.–The makeshift memorial caught Stacy Koester’s eye. She put on the brakes and inched her black Audi sports car backward along the gravel road to get a better look. A small wooden cross, adorned by a pink plastic carnation, was surrounded by a circle of rocks among craggy shrubs and cheat grass on the side of the hill at LAK Reservoir, outside Newcastle in Weston County.

Ashley Means inspects a mound of dirt near LAK Reservoir in Weston County. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

Koester looked at fellow searchers Ashley Means and Heidi Kennedy before jumping out of the car and bounding up the hill to get a closer look.

“Could this be anything?” Koester said, leaning down to peer at the cross.

The question hung in the air as Means and Kennedy walked over to inspect it. Doubtful, both agreed, although it certainly means something to somebody. In the absence of clues and answers as to what happened to Irene Gakwa, everything – and anything – is suspect out here.

Koester and her small group, who call themselves “Team Irene,” have been searching for the 33-year-old Kenyan-born nursing student since last June. Gakwa had been living in Gillette with her fiancé, 39-year-old Nathan Hightman, for less than a year when she vanished without a trace in late February 2022.

Gakwa’s parents last spoke to her via video call in February 2022; she was reported missing by her older brothers, both of whom live in Idaho, on March 20, 2022. None of Gakwa’s family members have heard from her since that call.

Hightman, who is considered by police to be a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s mysterious disappearance, is currently in the Campbell County Detention Center after pleading guilty in March to three felonies for draining Gakwa’s bank account, unauthorized use of her credit card and deleting her email account. His sentencing is scheduled for June 14.

Thus far, Hightman has not cooperated with police when it comes to Gakwa’s whereabouts, according to court documents; he contends Gakwa left their home on her own accord. Hightman told police she came home one night after dinner and announced that she was leaving town, before disappearing into a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed in two plastic bags.

Tight-lipped investigation

The Gillette Police Department has released very little information about their investigation into Gakwa’s disappearance. Last May, police issued a statement to the public seeking information about a silver Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates that may have been trespassing on private property or appearing out of place in rural areas. Police additionally asked for any information regarding a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and abandoned somewhere within the county.

The searchers were intrigued by a pile of branches tied with a scarf. They were looking for anything that appeared out of place and might be in some way linked to Irene Gakwa’s February 2022 disappearance. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

Five months later, Gillette police and the FBI conducted a nearly eight-hour search at the couple’s home in Northern Campbell County. The search involved three teams of cadaver dogs and crime scene investigators, who were seen removing several plastic bags and boxes of evidence, which were sent to FBI headquarters in Virginia for processing.

According to Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police, lab results are still pending, and there is no new information about the case.

Boots on the ground

It’s the 55-gallon drum that Koester and her team have been scouring the county for nearly a year. Saturday’s outing marked the group’s 11th search. Since last summer, they have searched on foot, horseback and ATVs, covering hundreds of miles of the sprawling 4,807-square miles within the county—and areas that include four of the largest open-surface coal mines in the world.

Some searches yielded clues that Koester turned over to police; she declined to disclose them publicly for fear of jeopardizing the case.

This is group’s first outing since January, when they conducted a horseback search while filming a CBS/Paramount+ docuseries, “Never Seen Again,” featuring Gakwa.

Koester, who has since been recruited as the private investigator on Gakwa’s case for the national nonprofit, We Help the Missing, remains undeterred about her promise to be the “feet on the ground” for the Gakwa family.

Irene Gakwa, a Kenyan nursing student, disappeared from her Gillette home in February 2022. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family) 

Today, the team has driven 77 miles northwest from Gillette to neighboring Weston County on a hunch. Wearing bright orange “search team” T-shirts, the trio tromped through high grass and boggy mud along the LAK Reservoir, looking for any clues that might be linked in some way to Gakwa.

The makeshift memorial on the hill that caught Koester’s attention garnered additional interest after Koester spotted a bundle of sticks tied together with a faded red scarf lying under a tree near the cross. All of these anomalies out in nature raise more questions than answers, though ultimately, Koester realized she was drawing at straws in attempting to connect this to Gakwa.

On the drive home, Means admitted to feeling disappointed that they hadn’t turned up any viable clues that might help lead police to Gakwa. But whether the search was fruitful or not, she feels encouraged that she’s doing something to help Gakwa’s family, who live in Idaho and Kenya, to find answers.

“Seeing Irene’s family and their comments on Facebook makes me so sad,” Means said. “And at least we are doing what we can because they can’t be here.”

Kennedy agreed: “I’m glad that we are back out doing it, because we made a promise to her family . . . .”  

Koester said the searches will continue until the group has answers—or the police solve the case.  

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

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