THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: The Mysterious Life of Nathan Hightman (Part 1)

Hightman remains “person of interest” in Kenyan’s disappearance

Pictured above is Nathan Hightman as a senior at Las Plumas High School in California. (Courtesy photo from Las Plumas High School yearbook)

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—Whois Nathan J. Hightman?

It’s a question that many people are asking—from Gillette to Nairobi. For the past 10 months, Hightman’s name has been splashed across headlines and his image broadcast on network news as the fiancé of Irene Gakwa, 33, the Kenyan nursing student who vanished last winter.

Hightman’s estranged stepsister described her older brother as a smart, tech-savvy homebody who spent his childhood tethered to his computer.

A former coworker and friend, who said she casually dated Hightman for a time, recalled him as a man who created a rich fantasy life.

His unearthed 2019 resume chronicled the life of a California native who worked as a customer service representative and former co-owner of a computer design company.

And to Gillette police, Hightman, 39, is a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s mysterious disappearance.

Gakwa was last seen in a video chat with her parents in late February and was reported missing by her brothers, Chris Gakwa and Kennedy Wainaina, on March 20.  

Hightman told police that Irene Gakwa left on her own accord at about the time she last spoke with her parents. He said that she returned from dinner one evening and announced that she was leaving; that she then packed her belongings in two plastic bags, entered a dark-colored SUV and left the area. He said he hasn’t seen or heard from her since.

Nathan Hightman (top row, third from the left) appears in a group photo with classmates at a California high school. (Courtesy photo from Las Plumas High School yearbook)

In May, Hightman was charged with five felonies related to financial and intellectual property crimes against Gakwa. The charges include three felonies involving transferring over $3,600 from Gakwa’s bank account, maxing out her credit card, changing her banking password and deleting an email account.

Police continue to investigate Gakwa’s disappearance. On Oct. 13, police and the FBI conducted a nearly eight-hour search of Hightman’s house. Several boxes of evidence were seized and sent to the FBI lab for processing, but according to Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police, there are no new updates to report.

Much has been written about Hightman’s felony charges and the many searches for Gakwa conducted by a dedicated group of local Gillette-area volunteers. But little has been reported about Hightman himself. Police said he is not cooperating with their investigation, and Hightman has yet to participate in any of the searches for Gakwa.

Hightman did not respond to the Wyoming Truth’s email request to be interviewed for the story. His attorney, Dallas Lamb with the Campbell County Public Defender’s Office, likewise did not respond to a request for an interview.

Hightman remains out on a $10,000 cash bail. He continues to reside in the couple’s home in northern Campbell County as he awaits his pretrial date in early January after being granted a second continuance.

Computer whiz

Hightman is rarely seen in public. One neighbor reported that groceries and food are frequently delivered to his house.

That Hightman has been reclusive isn’t only due to the notoriety brought by his fiancé’s disappearance. His propensity to stay at home dates back to childhood, according to his 36-year-old stepsister, Heather Mayo, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Chico in the northern Sacramento valley of California. The two grew up together in Oroville, about 30 miles away, after Mayo’s mother, Becky, married Hightman’s father, Richard, when she was eight. Becky and Richard did not respond to requests for an interview.

Also residing with them were Richard’s daughters and Hightman’s younger half-sisters, Nacole and Crystal, who moved out to live with their mother in 1999 when Mayo was 13.

Hightman’s two younger half-brothers, Alex and David “Max” Kircher, lived with Hightman’s mother, Evelyn Brenner, in a small town nearby, Thermalito.

As a child and teenager, Mayo said that Hightman spent most of his time playing on his computer in his room, while the other neighborhood kids were outside shooting hoops and playing other sports. “I do remember that he never liked to go outside to play, but our parents forced it,” she said to the Wyoming Truth via Facebook messenger.

Mayo also described Hightman as being highly intelligent. The two attended Las Plumas High School where he graduated in 2002. She said when Hightman told her that he could access information about her then-boyfriend and his parents on his computer, she didn’t believe him.

“But the next day, he showed me their information,” she said, without specifying what Hightman had uncovered.

Linda Draper, an English and journalism teacher at Las Plumas Hight School, taught Hightman journalism for one year. She recalled that he was “an average student” in her class, as well as an incident with classroom equipment.

“Students were allowed to check out digital cameras to get pics for stories, and we only had a few we bought with ad sales money,” Draper said. “[Nathan] had checked one out, and then it turned up missing. When questioned, he swore he knew nothing about it so I let it go.”

Mayo said she and Hightman had an “average brother and sister relationship.” The two bickered as teenagers, like many siblings do, but Mayo said, “We loved each other. … He was my big brother.”

Still, Mayo and Hightman haven’t spoken since about 2002, when he left home at age 18 while their parents were at work, she said. He moved in briefly with his mother before getting an apartment with his then-girlfriend.

According to Mayo, Hightman had a falling out with her mother after he reportedly took some “things” when he moved, including a chair. Becky, Mayo’s mother, paid for the belongings with money from a savings account she shared with her stepson.

Mayo said Hightman is estranged from his family, noting that he hasn’t attended any family functions or stayed in contact with his father or stepmother since leaving home.

“He wanted to start his own life,” she said.

Stay tuned for part two coming to you soon.

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