THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: The Mysterious Life of Nathan Hightman (Part 4)

Missing Kenyan’s older brother still plagued by troubling questions

Nathan Hightman and Irene Gakwa dated a year and socialized with Gakwa's friends and family in Idaho before moving to Wyoming in July 2021. (Courtesy photo from the Gakwa family)

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Nearly 10 months after Irene Gakwa disappeared from her Gillette home, her family still has more questions than answers as they attempt to piece together the mystery of what happened to her.

In May 2019, Gakwa moved from her parents’ home in Nairobi to Meridian, Idaho to live near her two older brothers, Chris Gakwa and Kennedy Wainaina, and to attend nursing school. Within a year, she met Nathan Hightman on a Craigslist forum.

The two began dating in the spring of 2020 and lived together for a year before moving to Wyoming in the summer of 2021. Gakwa was last seen in a video with her parents in late February and reported missing by her brothers on March 20.

Hightman, now 39, told police that Gakwa, then 32, fled in a dark SUV in late February. He said hasn’t seen or talked to her since, according to court documents. Police have named Hightman a “person of interest” in her disappearance.

In the wake of Gakwa’s departure, 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 for allegedly 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, court documents show.

Local residents gathered with the Gakwa family at a vigil at Legacy Park in Gillette in July to share memories of Gakwa who has been missing since February. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)

Hightman has pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to his former attorney Steven Titus, and his pretrial hearing is scheduled for early January. Hightman did not respond to subsequent requests for comment nor did his public defender, attorney Dallas Lamb. In a text exchange in July, Hightman told the Wyoming Truth he’d like to share his story but could not on the advice of his attorney. He also said that there have been “a few details” in the coverage of Gakwa that are incorrect but didn’t identify what those were.

Holes in the story

Gakwa’s oldest brother, Kennedy Wainaina, finds many details about his sister’s relationship with Hightman confounding. Among them: that she relocated to Wyoming.

Gakwa lived with both brothers before getting an apartment with a friend in Idaho in the fall of 2019. From there, she moved in with Hightman, but returned to Wainaina’s home in August 2020 after getting in a fight with Hightman, Wainaina said.

Wainaina also said that Hightman had accused Gakwa of using Hightman’s credit card to purchase a plane ticket to Kenya without his permission. Hightman reported her to police and pressed charges, Wainaina said.

Reached for comment, the Meridian Police Department referred the Wyoming Truth to the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office. “While we did receive reports from the Meridian Police Department to review, we declined to file charges,” Emily Lowe, public information officer for the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, wrote in an email.

Gakwa stayed with her older brother for several months before moving back in with Hightman.

During this time, Wainaina noticed perplexing changes in his sister’s behavior, particularly where her tight-knit family was concerned.

Gakwa failed to attend her niece’s college graduation in May 2021 after knowing about it for a year. Their local group of Kenyan nationals is small, and everyone asked why his sister wasn’t there, Wainaina said. He texted her, but received no response.

“I was hurt and confused,” said Wainaina, a 44-year-old pharmacist. “This just wasn’t like Irene. She was always there for her family.”

Then in July 2021, Gakwa announced she was moving to live with a friend in Arizona, where she’d have a fresh start.

Wainaina assumed Hightman hadn’t accompanied Gakwa to Arizona. “I was hoping he wasn’t with her anyway,” Wainaina told the Wyoming Truth.

When Wainaina received mail for Gakwa, he texted her and asked where to send it. She provided a Phoenix address, so Wainaina sent it there. It was not returned.

Stay tuned for part five coming to you soon.

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