THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Missing Kenyan’s Whereabouts Remain a Mystery

Public records indicate Gakwa may have been living in Texas, but police say there is no connection

In the wake of her disappearance in late February, Irene Gakwa's family tries to piece together what might have happened to her and some of the mysterious circumstances surrounding her life with Nathan Hightman, her 39-year-old fiance. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—In the deepening mystery of the disappearance of Irene Gakwa, new information has emerged indicating that the Kenyan who lived in Gillette may have recently moved to San Antonio, Texas, according to a search of public records by the Wyoming Truth

Records list Gakwa living in Texas since April—two months after she disappeared without a trace. 

The mortgage and landline for the Texas residence are tied to a 32-year-old man. The Wyoming Truth reached out to him to verify whether Gakwa lives there; he did not respond.

The Gillette Police said they have vetted the Texas address. “The San Antonio information was investigated shortly after the investigation began,” Brent Wasson, deputy chief of police, wrote in an email to the Wyoming Truth. “We have no comment on the results.”

When pressed about whether it is possible that Gakwa is still alive, Wasson wrote in a subsequent email: “We have not found any connection between Irene Gakwa and that address.”

Gakwa, a nursing student who moved from Nairobi to the United States in 2019, vanished from the ranch house in Gillette that she shared with her fiancé, Nathan Hightman, in late February. No one has heard from her since then.

A public record search lists two well-established addresses for Gakwa: in Meridian, Idaho, where she lived with her older brothers and their families in 2019 and 2020, and her address in Gillette, where she lived with Hightman for seven months.

Shrouded in the mystery of Gakwa’s whereabouts is conflicting information about where she had been living: She told her two older brothers, Chris Gakwa and Kennedy Wainaina, that she was moving to Arizona in July 2021 to share an apartment with a friend. 

In fact, she moved to Wyoming with Hightman, whom she had met on a Craigslist forum a year earlier.

Public records do not list an Arizona address for Gakwa.

Wainaina assumed she and Hightman had broken up, because Hightman told him on several occasions that he hated hot climates. Wainaina assumed that included Arizona and its sweltering temperatures. When Wainaina received a piece of mail for Gakwa, he texted her to find out where to send it. She gave him an address in Green Valley, Arizona, a city of about 22,600 residents 20 miles south of Tucson—and it was never returned.

Gakwa is not listed as a current or past resident of the Green Valley home, according to property records. Nor is the mortgage in her name.

Wainaina said he does not recognize the name of the current residents or owner. After Gakwa stopped communicating with her parents and family in late February, Wainaina asked the Green Valley police to conduct a wellness check on his sister. But during the inquiry, the occupants of the home said that they didn’t know Gakwa and that she hadn’t lived there.

“How she came up with that address still remains a mystery to me,” Wainaina told the Wyoming Truth.

Hightman told police that Gakwa left in a dark SUV in late February. He did not report her missing but told police he hasn’t seen or talked to her since, according to court documents. Police have named him a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance.

In May, Hightman was charged with five felonies, including allegedly transferring over $3,600 from her bank account and maxing out her credit card in over 90 separate transactions, according to court documents. He also has been charged with two additional felonies in which he is accused of changing the password to Gakwa’s bank account and deleting her Google email account. 

Hightman told police that he took Gakwa’s money to force her to contact him in the event she needed money, according to court documents.

Hightman has pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to his former attorney Steven Titus. Hightman did not respond to requests for comment nor did his public defender, attorney Dallas Lamb.

Hightman’s pretrial hearing for the five felonies is scheduled for Jan. 4, with a trial tentatively slated to begin in February.

Gakwa’s family, meanwhile, say as the months pass with no word on her whereabouts, it’s getting harder to hold out hope that they will see her again.

At an event in Gillette in late October, which the Gakwa family attended via Zoom to share their memories of their beloved sister, Chris Gakwa stated that they are clinging to hope.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I think Irene is just going to show up at my door or give us a call.”

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