THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Trial for Fiancé Over Alleged Financial Crimes Likely to be Delayed

State and defense agree on 10-day trial, request potential venue change for “high-profile” case

Nathan Hightman, 39, stands outside the Campbell County Courthouse in Gillette Wednesday night, following his pretrial conference for five felonies related to Irene Gakwa. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—In the latest wrinkle in the high-profile Irene Gakwa case, prosecutors and the defense for the missing woman’s fiancé have requested a longer trial and potentially a change of venue due to concerns that the defendant would not receive a fair trial in Gillette.

Both sides requested the trial be 10 consecutive days, as opposed to five, forcing a schedule change and potential delay in the trial, which centers on alleged financial crimes by Nathan Hightman.   

Hightman, 39, appeared before Campbell County District Judge James Michael Causey during his pretrial conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Hightman has been charged with five felonies against Irene Gakwa, 33, following her mysterious disappearance in last February. The charges include allegedly transferring over $3,600 from her bank account and maxing out her credit card in over 90 separate transactions, according to court documents. 

Hightman also has been charged with two additional felonies in which he is accused of changing the password to Gakwa’s bank account and deleting her Google email account. 

Gakwa, who moved to Gillette with Hightman in July 2021 following a two-year courtship in Idaho, was last seen by her parents in a video call in February. Gakwa, a Nairobi native, was reported missing on March 20, 2022 by her two older brothers, Kennedy Wainaina and Chris Gakwa.

Hightman is also considered a “person of interest” in her disappearance, police said.  

Hightman, dressed in khakis and a long sleeve blue shirt, sat beside his public defender Dallas Lamb during the hearing. He looked down at the table or at his attorney while Lamb and Campbell County Attorney Nathan Henkes discussed extending Hightman’s trial from five to 10 days.

Lamb and Hightman could not be reached for comment.

Chris Gakwa waits outside the courtroom in Gillette for Nathan Hightman’s pretrial hearing in connection with five felonies related to Irene Gakwa on Wednesday. Chris and his brother Kennedy Wainaina drove from Idaho to represent their sister who mysteriously disappeared in late February. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

The trial was originally scheduled for Feb. 6 – 10. Given that over 30 witnesses and family members will be traveling to the trial from out of state, both Henkes and Lamb requested 10 consecutive days. This requires  a schedule change because of the judge’s full docket and the “magnitude of moving parts,” Henkes said.

Henkes also raised the possibility of a venue change because the “high-profile case” has made local and national headlines in recent months. As a result, Henkes argued that “the pretrial exposure might be difficult to select a jury.”

The defense is expected to submit a pretrial motion within the coming days while the court reviews the schedule to determine a 10-day period when both the judge and venue are available. 

The pretrial hearing lasted less than 25 minutes, though both Gakwa and Wainaina said they were happy to have made the more than 1,700-mile round trip from their home in Meridian, Idaho, outside Boise.

The brothers arrived late Wednesday afternoon and met with Henkes after the hearing. Wainaina said he feels much better after meeting Henkes in person and seeing the thick case file on his desk.

“I feel good, and I’m glad we came,” he told the Wyoming Truth. “I feel like even the judge can tell that we want justice in this case for our sister, because she is not here to defend of herself.”

Wainaina further stated that he’s confident that Henkes is working hard on the case.

“I think he’s invested his time, and he’s ready to fight,” Wainaina said.

Wainaina said he was told by Henkes that the new trial date and potential venue change would likely be determined within one to two weeks.

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