THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Who is Irene Gakwa? (Part 2)

Longtime friend of missing Kenyan raises questions that remain unanswered

Irene Gakwa (left) and Susan Minkovsky went sightseeing together in Meridian, Idaho when Minkovsky visited in 2020. (Courtesy photo from Susan Minkovsky)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth


They called each other “twinnie” and checked in every day. Susan Minkovsky has known Irene Gakwa since they roomed together at the Karoti Girls High School outside Nairobi, Kenya. When Minkovsky moved to the United States to attend college in Alabama, their friendship didn’t wane.

“I would know when she woke up each day, because she would text me,” Minkovsky recalled during an interview with the Wyoming Truth. “We were very close.”

Gakwa, meanwhile, remained in Kenya, living in her parents’ house and working in the front office of a hotel. In 2019, Gakwa moved to Meridian, Idaho, to be close to her two older brothers and to attend nursing school.

Both women spoke passionately about their dreams of one day becoming nurses, Minkovsky said. In May, Minkovsky, who now lives in Philadelphia with her husband, will graduate from nursing school.

Meanwhile, Gakwa, 33, remains missing.

Gakwa was last seen on a video call with her parents in late February after moving to Wyoming in July 2021 with her fiancé Nathan Hightman.

Hightman, now 39, told authorities that he last saw Gakwa departing in a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed in two plastic bags. He is awaiting trial in April on five felony charges; he is accused of draining Gakwa’s bank account, maxing out her credit card and deleting her email, among other crimes. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. He also is considered a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s mysterious disappearance, according to court records.

Neither Hightman nor his public defender Dallas Lamb has responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Radio silent

Minkovsky and Gakwa were estranged last winter. Before then, they had spoken to each other almost every day for 13 years, but in early fall 2020, after Minkovsky encouraged Gakwa to leave Hightman, Gakwa went radio silent.

Minkovsky said she thought she had good reasons to make that recommendation. First, Gakwa had never mentioned Hightman in all of their calls and talks in the year since she’d left Kenya. Minkovsky was surprised to learn the couple lived together when she and her husband visited Gakwa in June of 2020 in Idaho. Gakwa had told Minkovsky that she had just moved in with a “roommate.” In truth, the couple had been dating for six months.

Later, as the two friends prepared dinner in the couple’s kitchen, Gakwa explained that she hadn’t mentioned Hightman because the two had a rocky relationship and she wasn’t sure it would last, Minkovsky recalled. He frequently insisted on knowing where Gakwa was, as well as accompanying her to parties and dinners with her friends in the Kenyan community, Minkovsky said.

Gakwa always was private and introverted—a homebody who preferred watching television rather than going out, according to Minkovsky. She was funny and sweet, Minkovsky added, and also incredibly shy.

“She doesn’t like public displays of affection,” Minkovsky said, “and really likes her space.”

Gakwa was reticent about her relationship with Hightman, while he was just the opposite, Minkovsky said.

“Nate wanted the whole world to know about Irene,” she said. “He was very excited to meet us…he talked about planning a trip to Kenya and wanted them to be together. Irene wanted to take it slow.”

Minkovsky recalled the two couples ate dinner on the living room floor, because Hightman didn’t own furniture then, apart from a recliner. Hightman and her husband had a casual conversation about their work in IT, she said. That night, Hightman told the gathering that he could hack into any computer, Minkovsky recalled. While in town, Minkovsky and her husband also went sightseeing with the couple and out to dinner.

Minkovsky said she pressed Gakwa about why she remained in the relationship, and Gakwa told her she was uncomfortable about wearing the pre-engagement ring that Hightman had given to her.

“I suggested she sit down with him and tell him how she feels,” Minkovsky said.

After Minkovsky returned to Philadelphia, Hightman called and texted her about Gakwa.

“He was accusing Irene of cheating,” Minkovsky said. “I thought it was weird, because he was going deep into personal details of Irene. I only met him [on that one visit to Idaho], and we come from a culture where we don’t discuss personal details.”

Minkovsky said the crux of Hightman’s complaints was that Gakwa was still in touch with her ex-boyfriend in Kenya. Minkovsky was not sure how long the two had dated, but only that they remained good friends.

“It was no big deal,” she said.

Minkovsky said she asked Hightman to discuss his concerns with Gakwa—and to stop contacting her.  

Two days later, Hightman texted Minkovsky. Gakwa, he wrote, was in trouble.

Minkovsky immediately picked up the phone and called Hightman. 

Stay tuned for part three coming to you soon.

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