Concerned residents in Gillette, Wyoming, continued their search in kayaks and on horseback on Labor Day weekend scouring land and water for a local woman who went missing more than six months ago.
Irene Gakwa’s nearest family members, two brothers and a sister-in-law, live more than 700 miles away but travel to Gillette from Meridian, Idaho, to look for her several weekends a month. Her father, 9,000 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya, is worried he may never see his daughter again.
“She’s always been a daddy’s girl,” her father, Francis Kambo, told CNN. He took a deep breath as he recalled that last video call on Feb. 24 with his only daughter and youngest of his three children.
Gakwa, 33, emigrated to the U.S. in 2019 to study nursing. Her parents said she was shy and introverted before leaving home and worried about how she would adjust to the states. She first lived with one of her older brothers, Chris Munga, and his wife, Gyoice Abatey, in Meridian. Gakwa moved to Gillette in summer 2021 to live with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, 39, an unemployed tech worker, she reportedly met on a Craigslist forum in 2020.
Abatey, who has a close bond with Gakwa, said the missing woman told her about Hightman in 2020 but never revealed details of the relationship. The couple was often on and off, and her relatives thought they had split and did not know she was living with the man until she went missing.
Gakwa is quiet and likes being independent, they said. She is also fun, loving and likes to laugh. Gakwa has a passion for caring for those in need and was taking nursing courses at Gillette Community College. The family would communicate every other day on WhatsApp video calls.
Kambo said he teased his 5-foot-2, 89-pound daughter about looking hungry and tired on the last video call in late February. Her hair, which she usually kept braided, was disheveled, her father said.
“Make sure you drink hot milk and relax,” her father recalled saying.
Gakwa did not respond to several video calls after that day, and her messages were “out of place.” There were not written in the Swahili and Kenyan slang she usually uses. Her oldest brother, Kennedy Wainaina, believes someone was using Google Translate to send them.
“Dad, I dropped my phone in the water, and now the microphone doesn’t work,” one message said.
Another said, “I just want you to know I love and miss you and mom.”
“We miss you … we want to see you, not just chat on WhatsApp,” her father responded. “We love you always. You will … be my daughter forever.”
On March 3, her family received messages from Gakwa’s phone about moving to Texas. Gakwa is on a family plan with her brothers, and they asked police to track her whereabouts. The phone was last used in Gillette, they found. Her brothers contacted friends with whom she recently spoke and learned then that she was living with Hightman.
Gakwa’s WhatsApp account was deleted on March 8, and her phone number was deleted two days later.
Gakwa’s brothers reported her missing on March 20. Hightman told authorities Gakwa packed her belongings and left their three-bedroom home in Gillette in a black SUV in late February. Police have named Hightman “a person of interest” in her disappearance. He is out on bond for charges related to deleting her email account, withdrawing money from her bank account, changing her bank account password and using her credit card.
“She had not introduced Nathan to me — that’s what kills me,” Kambo said.
Authorities accuse Hightman of transferring nearly $3,700 from Gakwa’s bank account to his own and spending $3,230 on her credit card. Police said he made more than a dozen purchases, including boots, rain pants and a shovel. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and his pretrial conference is in November.
“These transactions began on February 25, 2022, and continued through March 2022,” a probable cause affidavit says.
Gakwa’s family said Hightman bought a 55-gallon drum on Feb. 24, and neighbors saw him burning something in his backyard the next day.
Although the missing woman’s family is hundreds and thousands of miles away, community members have stepped in and kept the search going. Gillette resident Stacy Koester has posted daily updates on the search parties on TikTok and invites others to join. She hopes that it would pressure Hightman to speak up.
“Because we will not let it go cold. As you know, we are searching endlessly,” Koester said in a Sept. 4 TikTok video. “We will do so until we bring Irene home. We are really hoping at this point that Nathan will really feel backed into a corner. All we ask is that you speak to the police. Share your side of the story. Tell them. Nobody needs you to talk to them. Talk to the police.”
Gakwa’s family is holding on to hope that she will return home, but as the days go by, it starts to fade. Her mother is too distraught to speak to reporters, CNN reports.
“She was supposed to come home for Christmas this year. I was going to buy that ticket myself for her to come if she couldn’t afford it,” Kambo said, his voice shaking.
Growing up in Nairobi, Christmas was always Gakwa’s favorite holiday, her family recalled. Her nephews hosted a Zoom vigil in July for her 33rd birthday.
“I just want to know the truth. I’m still hopeful, but my hope is dwindling. She knows my number,” her father said.” The fact that she has not called …”