THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: The Mysterious Life of Nathan Hightman (Part 5)
Text messages show deepening courtship, but questions remain about an Arizona connection
- Published In: Criminal Justice
- Last Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Missing person signs line the yard of the home in northern Campbell County that Irene Gakwa shared with Nathan Hightman up until she mysteriously disappeared in late February. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)
Special to the Wyoming Truth
A stash of text messages obtained by the Wyoming Truth sheds light on the deepening and complex relationship between a missing Kenyan woman and her fiancé even as her oldest brother cautioned them to “take things slow” in their budding relationship.
Irene Gakwa moved from her parents’ home in Nairobi to Meridian, Idaho, in May 2019 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. Gakwa, then 31, began dating Hightman in the winter of 2020.
The two lived together for a year before moving to Gillette in July 2021. Gakwa was last seen in a video chat with her parents in late February and reported missing by her brothers on March 20.
Hightman, now 39, told police that Gakwa fled in a dark SUV in late February with her belongings packed into two plastic bags. He told police he hasn’t seen or talked to her since, according to court documents. Police have named Hightman a “person of interest” in her disappearance.
In May, Hightman was charged with five felonies in which he was accused of financial and intellectual property crimes against Gakwa, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges; his pretrial hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4. Neither Hightman nor his attorney responded to requests for comment for this story.
Wainaina and other family members found out Gakwa was dating Hightman from one of Gakwa’s friends in their Kenyan circle. Wainaina told his sister that the family would like to meet him.
A series of texts between Wainaina and Hightman provided to the Wyoming Truth indicate a fast-moving relationship in which Hightman appeared eager to receive approval from Gakwa’s brothers before presenting her with a promise ring.
“I wanted to get your input, as head of the house before making any big plans,” Hightman wrote in a July 20, 2020, text to Wainaina. Hightman explained that he purchased the pre-engagement ring as a token of his commitment to their relationship in conjunction with their half-year dating anniversary and Gakwa’s 32nd birthday.
“I wanted to give her the ring with her close family together, because she would hate the grand public gesture I would prefer,” Hightman wrote.
In response, Wainaina suggested that Hightman “take things slow. Don’t be in a hurry.” In subsequent texts, Hightman kidded about the way Wainaina questioned him about his intentions.
“I might be joking a bit with the interrogation stuff, but I can imagine if someone came into my family requesting my blessing for my sister, I would have a lot of questions,” Hightman wrote in another text to Wainaina. “So jokes aside, I understand the importance and seriousness of it all.”
Other texts from Hightman encouraged Wainaina to ask him anything about his intentions toward Gakwa, as well as to provide “proof of his commitment.”
On July 25, 2020, Hightman wrote: “Kennedy, I mentioned this previously with you, but if you had any questions or wanted any proof of my commitment to ensuring Irene’s well-being, I would be more than glad to meet with you or answer any questions…”
Hightman further expressed a desire to receive the family’s blessing and to honor their particular cultural traditions.
During this time, the two brothers and their families dined with the couple about 10 times. Once, Hightman arrived 30 minutes early at Wainaina’s house; he told Wainaina that he wanted to get to know him better.
From the start, Wainaina said he and his family found Hightman controlling and somewhat cold. At the same time, he and his brother wanted their sister to be independent as she forged a new life in the United States.
Hightman continued to seek Wainaina’s blessing in his proposal.
“As head of the household, I would like your blessing before I present Irene the promise [ring],” Hightman wrote in the July 25 text to Wainaina.
Wainaina texted that the next step would be for Hightman to invite the family over for dinner, once again cautioning Hightman to “take it one step at a time unless you are in a hurry.”
Hightman responded: “I would love to have you over.…I am not sure how Irene would like the invitation, and full disclosure, I never bothered to get the essentials like a couch or TV, but I would be glad to have you over.”
Hightman added that he planned to give Irene a promise ring – not an engagement ring – and inquired about the Kenyan traditions for doing so.
“…I would like to know I am not stepping on any values,” Hightman wrote. “It is a serious commitment that I have not made to someone since I was 18.”
That dinner occurred in mid-August. The ring was not discussed, Wainaina said. Nor did Hightman present it to Gakwa.
Wainaina said the gathering was fine. After that dinner, Hightman once again requested Wainaina’s approval; Wainaina reiterated that the family needed more time to get to know him. At that point, he and Gakwa began to pull away from the family.
“I think he expected us to jump on the wagon and approve,” Wainaina recalled. “I kept telling him it was my sister’s decision and I wasn’t the one to approve and that it would take time for us to get to know him.”
Communications waned between the two. And since his sister’s disappearance, Wainaina has had no further communications with Hightman.
Move to Phoenix?
In July 2021, the couple moved to Wyoming, though Gakwa told her family that she had moved alone to Phoenix. Wainaina thought that Gakwa and Hightman had broken up.
During this time, Gakwa stayed in touch with her family, mostly texting with her brothers and talking frequently with her parents in video chats. Gakwa returned to Idaho in November 2021 for Thanksgiving.
She arrived at her brother’s house alone via Uber from the Boise airport, Wainaina said.
“She said she flew here from Phoenix,” he said. “We now think he [Hightman] drove her here based on how she got here and where she wanted a ride to and from the airport.”
The family prepared traditional Kenyan food together, and Gakwa seemed happy, Wainaina recalled.
That was the last time the family saw Gakwa.
They’ve since been assigned a victim advocate from the FBI, following a near eight-hour search of Hightman’s home on Oct. 18.
As head of the family, Wainaina struggles with guilt. “I can’t help but think this is my fault,” he said. “I wish we could have been there for my sister.”