THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Who is Stacy Koester?

Citizen sleuth continues search efforts as one-year anniversary of Kenyan nursing student approaches

Gillette resident Stacy Koester has led the charge to find Irene Gakwa, who disappeared from the home she shared with her fiancé Nathan Hightman last winter. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—Another tip has come in. Stacy Koester headed east on Interstate 90 Saturday morning to investigate a 55-gallon barrel that was spotted on ranchland in eastern Campbell County.  

Over the past eight months, Koester has logged hundreds of miles in her 2019 Audi A6, scouring the countryside for any trace of 33-year-old Irene Gakwa

Stacy Koester, 39, leafs through a family photo album as her own loss motivates her to help Irene Gakwa’s family find answers. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester) 

Gakwa, a Kenyan national who moved to Gillette in 2021 with her fiancé, Nathan Hightman, has been missing since late February. She was last seen in a video call with her family in Kenya on Feb. 24 and reported missing in March.  

Hightman, 39, was arrested in May 2022 and charged with five felonies related to financial and intellectual crimes against Gakwa. He is scheduled to stand trial in April. Hightman also is considered a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance, according to police.

Gillette police have released very little information to the public about Gakwa’s case. But in May, they issued a statement asking residents to be on the lookout for a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.

It’s this barrel that Koester has been chasing for months after declaring herself the “feet on the ground” for the Gakwa family, who reside in Idaho and Kenya.

Call to action

Out of instinct, Koester reached in the console to grab a cigarette before catching herself. She laughed. Koester vowed to  stop smoking and is still trying to break the habit. Cigarettes had helped calm her nerves during these road trips and searches.

Koester and her small team of volunteers have conducted nine group searches for Gakwa; she also searches on her own many evenings after work and on weekends.

The 39-year-old office manager has been unwavering in her efforts to locate Gakwa since reading about her on Facebook last spring. Koester didn’t know Gakwa, but was struck by her story, primarily that she was an African national studying nursing and working as a home health aide so far from home.

“She literally came to America with the goal of helping others,” Koester said. “Her family deserves answers.”

Koester herself is no stranger to tragedy. To date, she has lost four of her six siblings and her mother. All of these deaths have taken a toll on Koester, including the most recent loss of her oldest sister, Dawn, to colon cancer in December.

Prior to this, Koester’s sister Brandy died in a drunk driving accident at age 24. Then, her 42-year-old sister, Deana, died from her injuries after her camping tent caught on fire.

Deana’s boyfriend made it out alive with only minor burns on his hand; police ruled the fire an accident. Her older brother, Jeff, died in a car accident at age 42 while delivering a rescue puppy to its forever home. Her father disappeared from the family when she was a young girl. Most painful to Koester is the passing of her mother, who died of cancer in Koester’s arms in 2020.

But unlike Gakwa’s family, Koester has closure. 

“It’s a living nightmare, but at least I know what happened,” she said. “Not knowing is such a haunting feeling. You picture a 100 different scenarios, but you just don’t know, and your mind can’t rest.”

The death of mother, Judy Pownall, deeply impacted Stacy Koester, and she channels her grief into helping others find their missing loved ones. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester) 

Amateur detective

Koester has always had a passion for true crime and mystery. She and her mother binge watched “Law & Order SUV” and “CSI: Miami,” and she’s read all of John Grisham’s books. At one point, Koester considered becoming a lawyer, but earned a finance degree instead.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of ever having to represent someone who has done wrong to children or been abusive to their spouse or harmed animals,” said Koester, who spent her early childhood in Georgia and other states before her family settled in Gillette in 1994.

Koester’s passion to find Gakwa is consistent with her character. Her husband, Bobby, is accustomed to watching her assist those in need.

“She’s a woman who wants to save people and animals, even if it’s only one at a time,” he said.  

After reading about Gakwa’s disappearance, Koester immediately sprang into action, recruiting other concerned citizens via social media and arranging the first group search over the July 4th weekend. More than a dozen of Gakwa’s friends and family showed up.  

Since then, Koester has conducted group searches on horseback and ATVs, and police led a search with cadaver dogs. She also regularly receives tips – like the one about the 55-gallon drum last week – that she shares with law enforcement, along with the GPS coordinates to any items the search team uncovers.

Koester provides regular updates on her @soldiermomwy TikTok channel that now has over 10,000 followers. This coverage has not escaped Hightman’s attention: He attempted to file a stalking order against Koester in September, which was ultimately dismissed by the judge.

Inspired by her work on the Gakwa case, Koester is in the process of launching a nonprofit, WyoFind. It will provide feet on the ground to aid police and families in locating other missing persons in Wyoming.

Finding answers

Koester flipped on her turn signal and pulled onto a desolate county road. She scanned the snow-covered grass before heading up a windy hill, where she thinks the barrel was spotted. The tip had already been turned over to police, but Koester wanted to see it for herself.

Koester believes Gakwa’s family has accepted that Gakwa is likely dead, but she refuses to stop searching until the family gets answers.

Koester pulled into a driveway and turned the car around after spotting what looked like a rusted barrel sitting on its side in a pile of snow. She jumped out of her Audi, sprinted to the fence and snapped a photo of the first promising clue in many months. 

In the meantime, Koester is printing T-shirts for the fundraiser she is hosting on Feb. 20 at Hands On Pottery to mark Gakwa’s one-year disappearance. She wants to raise money for Gakwa’s brothers to travel to Gillette for Hightman’s April trial. Koester also is mapping out terrain for a search on Feb 18—her mother’s birthday. 

“I think it’s a beautiful day, and we will have her to guide us,” she said.

Anyone interested in helping with searches can contact Koester at (307) 299-6710.

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