THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Who is Irene Gakwa? (Part 3)

Hightman, fiancé of missing Kenyan, reported her to police for theft; she denied the allegation, accusing him of setting her up—then he withdrew the allegation

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Newly obtained records deepen the mystery of the missing Kenyan who lived in Gillette: Before moving to Wyoming, Nathan Hightman reported to police that his fiancé, Irene Gakwa, used his credit card without permission to purchase a plane ticket to Nairobi.

But she denied the allegation, accusing Hightman of setting her up. Then he withdrew his allegation.

During the summer of 2020, Hightman and Gakwa were living together in an apartment in Meridian, Idaho. The two had met on a Craigslist forum shortly after Gakwa moved from Kenya in 2019.

The couple moved to Gillette in July 2021; seven months later, in February, Gakwa mysteriously disappeared from the home they shared. Police have identified 39-year-old Hightman as a “person of interest” in her disappearance; he is awaiting trial, charged with five financial felonies against Gakwa. Hightman has pleaded not guilty.

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

According to a narrative report the Wyoming Truth obtained from the Meridian Police Department, Hightman went in person to the police station just after 8 a.m. on Aug. 18, 2020, to accuse the woman he lived with of illegally using his credit card to purchase a $9,176 plane ticket to Kenya for a flight that December. Names were redacted from the report, but Hightman identified a female partner who “was originally from a small town in Kenya, and therefore, most likely purchased the ticket to visit family.”

Hightman said he found out about the ticket when an Orbitz employee, the travel site on which the ticket was booked, called to confirm the flight. Hightman called his bank to verify and then declined the charge before reporting it to police.

Hightman told police he’d left his wallet on the kitchen counter and said Gakwa must have taken the card to buy the ticket, according to the report. Hightman provided documentation with a charge listed as “Lufta Airline” on his credit card. The bank confirmed the purchase, which was purchased under the name “Luftansa” and used a Seattle address.

Hightman said he was unaware of Gakwa’s having made other purchases, but canceled all of his credit cards, according to the police report.  He further stated that he and Gakwa had been together for about six months, that they were “on the outs” and that he hadn’t given her permission to use his credit card. Hightman wanted to press criminal charges, the report stated.

Police went to the couple’s apartment at 12:12 p.m. that day to question Gakwa and search her phone and computer.

An examination of Gakwa’s search history on her laptop indicated a visit to just before 7 a.m. The police report does not specify the name of the traveler, only that it was booked for “one person.”

When questioned, Gakwa confirmed that she had family in Kenya, but repeatedly denied using Hightman’s card or purchasing the ticket. Police advised Gakwa that, given the evidence, “it appeared she was the likely suspect.” Gakwa continued to deny the allegations and said she thought Hightman made the purchase himself.

Changing stories

Just about three weeks later, Hightman called police to recant his allegation against Gakwa. He told police on Sept. 8 that he had since learned Gakwa did not purchase the ticket.

Hightman provided the following explanation of how he thought the charge ended up on his credit card: He told police that someone had downloaded the application Team Viewer, which allows another user to access that person’s computer remotely, and then purchased the ticket with his credit card. When asked how that person would have accessed his card, Hightman turned the finger on a former co-worker who he suspected had broken into his apartment a few months earlier and “wrote down or took a picture of his credit card.”

Hightman acknowledged that he did not report the alleged burglary to police when it happened and that he lacked proof of these accusations.

In response, the officer told Hightman that it sounded like Hightman was trying to come up with an alternative theory to protect Gakwa from getting in trouble; Hightman denied that and said he no longer wished to press charges, according to the police report.

The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office also declined to file charges, said Emily Lowe, public information officer for the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office.

Questions surrounding charges

Gakwa’s long-time friend from Kenya, Susan Minkovsky, told the Wyoming Truth that Hightman texted her right after he went to the police station to let her know that Gakwa was in trouble.

Two days prior to calling the police, Hightman had accused Gakwa of cheating in a text message to Minkovsky, according to a copy of that text. Minkovsky questioned why Hightman had gone to police in the morning as Gakwa slept.

“If you’re in a relationship with someone, why wouldn’t you wake her up to ask her [if she’d bought the plane ticket] before going to police?” Minkovsky asked. “She was sleeping in bed.”

Minkovsky insisted that Gakwa would never steal anyone’s credit card to purchase a plane ticket. Minkovsky said no one she knows from Kenya would use the German Lufthansa Airline to book a ticket to Kenya at several times the typical price.

After Hightman made these accusations, Minkovsky said she encouraged Gakwa to move out.

“I told her these were some serious charges, and I cautioned her about staying in a relationship with him,” she said.

Gakwa began to speak less and less to Minkovsky. She also began to pull away from her family at the same time, Minkovsky said. She further wishes she would have tried harder to stay in touch with her friend.

“There’s a whole lot of things,” she said, “that don’t make sense.” 

Stay tuned for part four coming to

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