THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: “Team Irene” Gears up for Next Search as Case Garners More National Attention
TikTok videos return following judge’s dismissal of protective stalking order
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Pictured above is Irene Gakwa, who has been missing for over 205 days after moving to Gillette with her fiancé last year. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
GILLETTE, Wyo.—After six days of silence, Stacy Koester’s TikTok videos are back following a judge’s dismissal of a stalking protection order by the fiancé of a missing Gillette resident who Koester has vowed to find.
On Saturday, Koester reminded her more than 6,100 followers on her @soldiermomwy that 205 days have now passed since anyone has seen or heard from Irene Gakwa.
Gakwa, 33, moved to Gillette in 2021 with her fiancé, 38-year-old Nathan Hightman. She was last seen on a video call with her parents in Nairobi, Kenya, in late February and reported missing on March 20 by her two older brothers who live in Idaho.
Hightman has since been charged with five felonies related to financial and intellectual property crimes against Gakwa and also has been named by police as “a person of interest” in her disappearance.
Koester spearheads “Team Irene,” a dedicated Gillette-based group that conducts daily and bi-monthly searches for Gakwa. In her Saturday TikTok video, she assured her followers that the group will continue its efforts until Gakwa is found. The next search is scheduled for Sept. 24, Koester announced on TikTok and Facebook.
More national headlines
The increased publicity in Gakwa’s disappearance is generating more local interest in the case, said Koester who appeared on NewsNation and CNBC last week. The national headlines have prompted messages from strangers, along with people who know both Gakwa and Hightman.
Some have information about Hightman, which Koester directed them to share with the Gillette Police Department.“I have had a few women reach out to me who knew Nathan in the past,” she told the Wyoming Truth. “I think some information shared is painting a clear picture of who he was and who he is.”
She added, “Everyone is seeing Irene’s face now, and everyone is also seeing what Nathan has tried to do to hinder our search efforts and to what lengths he will go to try to shut up the people who are making Irene’s story . . . known.”
“No one should ever have to go to bed at night wondering where their family member is,” Koester said. “Irene’s family cannot even begin their healing process without knowing what happened to her. The always wondering what happened is a haunting real-life nightmare.”
Increased interest in case
Since Gakwa’s story made national headlines, Koester’s TikTok following has climbed by over a 1,000 viewers, and her “Find Irene Gakwa” Facebook page is also gaining traction. It now has nearly 2.1K followers.
Rachel Johnson from Idaho shared her sentiments in a Sept. 17 post.
“This all breaks my heart,” Johnson wrote. “I worked with [Irene] in Idaho for a few years. We even considered getting a place together and becoming roommates. We took care of adult men with disabilities. She was so loving and always joking with the guys to make them laugh…She was a joy to be around. I am not local to Wyoming, but I have been following this from day one as [Irene]was not just a coworker to me but a friend. Thank you to who runs this group and keeps us updated.”
Other encouragement came from Sia Nyorkor, a news anchor and journalist for 19 News in Cleveland who goes by the moniker “TVNewsLady” on Facebook.
“Bless you,” Nyorkor wrote on one post with an emoji of praying hands.
In another, Gakwa’s dad, Francis Kamboh, simply wrote “That’s my daughter.”
“Angel sent from heaven”
Koester speaks regularly to Kamboh and other members of Gakwa’s family. They could not attend the hearing in Wyoming and weren’t permitted by the judge to testify via phone. Gakwa’s older brother, Kennedy Wainaina, voiced their support of Koester in a letter that was not entered as evidence.
Wainaina and his brother live with their families 800 miles away in Meridian, Idaho. They have only traveled to Gillette twice—once to file a missing person report last March and again in July when Koester arranged a group search, vigil and silent protest outside Hightman’s home.
He and his family consider Koester their feet on the ground and appreciate her efforts to find their sister, particularly her daily updates and videos, Wainaina wrote.
“We fully support everything Stacy is doing to help us find Irene,” he wrote, “and we all wish we were there by her side.”
Wainaina further stated that Gakwa’s father considers Koester to be “an angel sent from heaven.”
“Stacy should be allowed to spread word as much as she can to help us bring Irene home,” he wrote.
Koester is happy the protective order was dismissed, but said there were no real winners that day: “Though I won against Nathan, nobody really wins right now because we don’t have answers as to what happened to Irene.”
The next group search in Gillette on Sept. 24 marks seven months since anyone has seen or heard from Gakwa. Koester hopes this date will serve as a lucky charm.
“I think dates always align with something,” she said, “and I am truly hopeful hosting the search on the 24th will bring us to answers finally.”
The search party will meet at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Sinclair gas station at the bottom of Gurley Overpass.
Gakwa’s family has also started a Gofundme page to help raise money for their future travel to Wyoming. As of Sept. 18, they have raised $2,265 toward their $10,000 goal.