THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Strangers Join Family to Search for Missing Kenyan in Gillette
Police investigating evidence recovered
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Jul 08, 2022
Pictured above is Irene Gakwa, who was last seen in late February in Gillette, Wyoming. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
GILLETTE, Wyo.—The overgrown grass and weeds riffled in the light breeze as dozens of volunteers trudged through the irrigation ditches along former Highway 59, near the Dry Fork Mine in northern Campbell County last Saturday. The searchers squinted in the early morning sun under ball caps and straw hats while they poked through the thigh-high brush, looking for clues that might lead to the mysterious disappearance of Irene Gakwa.
Gakwa was last seen in Gillette in February during a video call with her parents. The 32-year-old Kenyan native and nursing student was later reported missing on March 20 by her brothers, Kennedy Wainaina and Chris Gakwa, who live in Boise, Idaho.
This is the brothers’ second trip to Wyoming. The first was in the days following their sister’s disappearance when they drove overnight to meet with police. Since then, there have been many questions but few answers.
All they know at this point is that Gakwa had been living in Wyoming for just under a year with her fiancé, Nathan Hightman, whom she met on a dating website in Boise.
Hightman, a 38-year-old unemployed tech worker, did not join the search party over the July 4th weekend. He told police that Gakwa left their home in late February in a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed into two black plastic trash bags. Hightman said Gakwa didn’t tell him where she was going, only that she was unhappy and was leaving Gillette.
Hightman is considered “a person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance, but has not been charged, police say. He has been charged with five felonies related to unlawful use of Gakwa’s bank account and credit card, as well as deleting her email account and changing her banking password, according to court documents filed in the case.
Hightman has pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to his former attorney Steven Titus, who has since been discharged from the case. Court documents state that Hightman lost his tech support job on May 1 and had all his assets frozen by police, forcing him to apply for a court-appointed attorney.
In a text exchange, Hightman told the Wyoming Truth that he has been harassed and received death threats, but would like to share his story, pending approval from his attorney, because he has “something that will blow open a whole new view of what has transpired thus far.”
Vigil and search
Gakwa’s brothers returned to Wyoming over the July 4th weekend, bringing 11 friends and family members to look for Gakwa and meet the four Gillette residents who organized the search party and a Friday night vigil. It was the first time any of them had met.
Gakwa’s family and their friends were deeply touched by the kindness of Stacy Koester, Melissa Bloxom, Lacey Ayers and Heidi Kennedy, who, they say, now feel like family given all they’ve done locally to help find Irene.
The four organizers met on the “Find Irene Gakwa” Facebook page, which was created by Chris’ wife, Joyce, in late April.
Though none of them have met Gakwa, they were drawn to her story and the fact that someone had gone missing in their town. To date, Gakwa is one of five people missing from Gillette, dating back 40 years, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database.
The fact that Gakwa’s family was 800 miles away – with her parents even further in Nairobi, Kenya – prompted the Gillette residents to take action. They conducted one small search in early June, but planned to cover much more ground during Saturday’s search.
Koester, a 39-year-old office manager at GCR Tires and Service, is the group’s unofficial spokesperson. What she lacks in law enforcement experience, she makes up for in “bossiness” and organizational skills, she joked, as she briefed more than 30 volunteers—divided into four groups—from Gillette and Idaho.
Some heard about the search on the radio, while others saw the Facebook page. One local individual personally knew Gakwa, but only in passing.
Koester explained that they were looking for bare patches of earth, discarded clothes and other items or bones. She grimaced and apologized when she told them that a group that leads cadaver dogs was awaiting the nod from police before they began their work.
“Be on the lookout for snakes and road kill,” Koester warned. Volunteers were further instructed not to touch anything they found, but to mark it with pink flags, so law enforcement could follow up.
“There’s no book on how to do this,” Koester said, coating herself in bug spray and handing off the can. “We’re not detectives, but we’re going to bring Irene home to her family.”
Wainaina, a pharmacist who moved to the United States for college, kicked loose rocks along the highway as he reflected on the emotional toll Gakwa’s disappearance has taken on their family. In the distance, other volunteers huddled around a dirt mound, poking it with a walking stick. Wainaina stopped briefly to watch before heading down the road.
It’s been hard to keep living their lives, he said.
“We just want answers,” he said, “no matter what they might be. My parents are really struggling. This helps give us something to tell them.”
Wainaina and the Idaho group arrived on Friday night for the vigil. They’ve been in constant contact with Koester for the last few months, but meeting them in person and seeing the outpouring of support brought Wainaina to tears.
“We are in a dark time, and it’s good to have love,” he said.
Chris’ wife, Joyce, agreed as she thanked the four organizers for giving them hope.
“Without hope we have nothing,” she said.
Meeting Gakwa’s family has given Koester and the others a greater resolve to find her and get answers.
“Before we were 100% committed to bringing Irene home,” Koester said. “Now, we’re 200% involved. They’re our family now.”
Next search set for July 16
The brothers and family weren’t thrilled about their sister leaving Idaho, Wainaina said, but they supported her decision because they wanted her to live her life and gain some independence.
Gakwa and Hightman met shortly after Gakwa moved to Boise in 2019; they lived together for about 18 months before moving to Wyoming. Prior to this, Gakwa lived with her parents and worked in the tourist industry.
The family never approved of Hightman, finding him controlling and distant, Wainaina said. He added that Hightman has cut off communication with their family.
In May, Hightman was charged with three felonies that include transferring more than $3,600 from Gakwa’s bank account and maxing out her credit card on purchases, including boots and a shovel, which were later located in the couple’s home, according to court documents.
Hightman told police that he accessed Gakwa’s bank accounts and removed the money to force her to contact him. He said he has not heard from her since she left, according to the affidavit filed in the case.
He has also been charged with two additional felonies for changing the password to Gakwa’s bank account and deleting her Google email account.
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.
According to a document filed in district court on June 10, Hightman’s pre-trial conference is scheduled for Sept. 1, with a trial to follow the first week of October.
Authorities have declined to comment on the case or any of the evidence that was found during the search over the July 4th weekend, according to Lt. Brent Wasson with the Gillette Police.
In the meantime, Koester and her crew have planned their next search for July 16. It’s become something of a second full-time job, Koester said, as she canvasses for clues, including talking to Hightman’s childhood friends to learn more about him.
Koester shares her information with police and Gakwa’s family. While Koester has confidence in the police, she and her crew plan to continue their efforts on the ground. Now that she’s met the family, it’s become personal.
“There’s not a lot that scares me,” she said, dousing her hair with a bottle of water as she drew the volunteers together to direct them to a new location to search.
Koester paused to wring her wet hair and apply sunscreen beneath her eyes. “It might take five, 10 or 15 years to find her, but you have to hold on to that hope. If you don’t, it will destroy you.”
Anyone with information about Irene Gakwa is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at (307) 682-5155.