THE SEARCH FOR IRENE:  The Mysterious Life of Nathan Hightman (Part 2)

Family, friends say early tragedy marked turning point for fiancé of missing Kenyan

Nathan Hightman sits behind the wheel of his new Subaru in snowy conditions in Boise, Idaho. (Courtesy photo from Chala Gaipl)

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—Nathan Hightman is no stranger to tragedy.

Much has been said and written about the strange and troubling disappearance of his fiancé, Irene Gakwa, from this part of coal country in Wyoming. But lost in the hue and cry is who’s at the center of the story—Hightman himself—and the little-known fact that, when he was in his early 20s, his mother was murdered at her home by her estranged ex-husband.

Hightman and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment. But extensive interviews with his family and friends, public records and archival news reports tell a tragic story about his mother, Evelyn, and her husband, David Brenner, who had a stormy relationship and were going through their second divorce from each other; she was killed at the age of 43.

One of Hightman’s two half-brothers was home at the time of the murder; Hightman was not, Heather Mayo, his 36-year-old stepsister, told the Wyoming Truth.

One of the boys told police he was lying on the couch watching television when, at about 10 p.m., he heard his mother shout: “(Expletive!) It’s Dave – run!” Then, seconds later: gunshots.

Evelyn was shot twice in her upper torso through the partially opened front door. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Oroville Medical Center. Evelyn had been a firefighter for the U.S. Forestry Service for 18 years, according to an obituary from the Oroville Funeral Home.

Brenner initially entered a dual plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity; he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in 2007, according to local media reports, and spent over a year in a state hospital. However, doctors declared he was competent to stand trial in 2009.

Court records in Butte County Super Court indicate Brenner entered a plea of no contest to one count of murder at his trial in July 2011; then 65, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in state prison.

Brenner died at age 72 of acute liver failure and other complications on Aug. 2, 2018, according to Phay Tran, an office assistant at the San Joaquin office of the medical examiner. Dana Simas, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections, confirmed that Brenner died at a hospital outside the prison while serving his sentence.

Chala Gaipl, who met Hightman in 2014 in Meridian, Idaho, and came to know him well, said his mother’s murder haunted him.

Every year on the anniversary of her death, Hightman would “close off” and spend the day alone, recalled Gaipl, who said she worked with him in customer service at T-Mobile and casually dated him about two years after they met.

“Nate was the only [family member] who wasn’t home,” Gaipl, 40, said in a phone interview with the Wyoming Truth. “He told me she was the only perfect person he knew and was an angel.”

Hightman’s stepmother, Becky Hightman, said that Evelyn’s death seemed to mark a turning point in his life. “He just kind of lost it after his mom died,” she told the Wyoming Truth.

Until that point, Becky described her stepson as a “good kid,” one who was “kind and funny.” She added that they were close until Hightman graduated from high school and broke ties with their family.

Gaipl said Hightman told her that his mother was murdered on the job and that the killer was still at large.

“Nate is a huge fantasist,” she said.

Still, Gaipl was shocked to learn that Gillette police have identified Hightman as a “person of interest” in the mysterious disappearance of his fiancé, Gakwa. Gaipl briefly met Gakwa in Idaho before Gakwa and Hightman moved to Gillette in July 2021.

Hightman, 39, has been charged with five felonies in which he is accused of draining Gakwa’s bank account, maxing out her credit card, deleting an email account and changing a banking password. He’s out on a $10,000 cash bail as he awaits his pre-trial conference for the felonies in early January.

In an exclusive interview with the Wyoming Truth, Gaipl said she and Hightman began a casual intimate relationship in 2016 and remained friendly until he moved to Wyoming with Gakwa.

Gaipl said Hightman cast himself as an international banker and computer hacker. She also said he worked as a financial analyst at Citibank, where he said he handled high-profile accounts in excess of $20 million.

Hightman’s resume stated he worked as a district leader at CitiGroup Inc. from 2002 to 2008, where he “built and led a team of individuals to meet and exceed company goals” and “sold financial products, investments, and services to new and existing customers,” among other duties.

Reached for comment, a CitiGroup spokesperson could not confirm Hightman’s employment.

Hightman professed to be wealthy, claiming to work in customer service at T-Mobile to beat boredom, Gaipl said. T-Mobile did not respond to a request to verify his employment.

“He likes to present himself as a secret agent,” Gaipl remarked. “He told me he has dealings all over Europe.”

In one instance, she said Hightman boasted about paying cash for a new Ford Mustang, which required him to handcuff a briefcase full of money to his wrist to bring to the car dealership. Said Gaipl: “He said he’d come to Idaho because it was on the down low.”

Stay tuned for part three coming to you soon.

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