A distressed family is asking the Wyoming governor and other elected officials to help them locate a woman who went missing in the “Equality State” in early 2022.
As the woman’s boyfriend nears his criminal trial on charges of illegally transferring money out of her account after she went missing, the woman’s family wants answers from government officials about her case.
Irene Gakwa, a Kenyan immigrant who moved to the United States to become a nurse in 2019, was last seen by her relatives a year ago, on Feb. 24, 2022, according to CNN, and reported missing on March 20, 2022.
The family and the community are now calling on the Gillette Police Department, the Gillette City Council, Gov. Mark Gordon, the city of Gillette, the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, D.C., to help find Gakwa.
On Friday, Feb. 24, Gakwa’s brother Kennedy Wainaina and his cousin Tarisai Githu went to the state capitol to push politicians to support them in their quest to locate Gakwa. While the governor was not available, the two were able to leave him a note (and petition) and meet with others.
“State Sens. Eric Barlow and Lynn Hutchings sat down with us and listened to our story,” Githu said. “We asked them to nudge the Gillette Police and the FBI to see if they have any information they can share with the family. We want to know – is the case cold? Is there something they know? They haven’t told us anything.”
The note shared the family’s frustration with the lack of progress on the case.
“This letter is to request your administration take steps in shedding light on the efforts made thus far in the search for Irene Gakwa,” the letter read.
Michael Pearlman, a spokesperson for Gordon, said, “The governor is aware of the case, and the highest levels of law enforcement are participating in the investigation, including the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.”
The 33-year-old moved to the U.S. in 2019, settling in Meridian, Idaho, near two of her older brothers who lived there and starting nursing school. The following year she met her boyfriend Nathan Hightman on a Craigslist forum.
Her brother Wainaina said in 2022, “At that time, everything seemed OK. I didn’t really know Nathan, but I said, ‘If you’re going to date my sister, I really need to know about you, and it’s going to take a time or two to hang out.’”
A Change.org petition states the couple moved in together in Meridian and during the summer of 2021, they relocated to Gillette, where she transferred nursing schools.
After she moved from Idaho to live with Hightman in Gillette, Wyoming, her family noticed her behavior started to change.
The parents said their last WhatsApp video call was also concerning. The father teased her on the video chat saying she looked “hungry and tired.” The parents said her short hair looked “rumpled” and was not in the usual braided style it normally was in. They also said her smile was “subdued.”
Wainaina said after the two got engaged Gakwa stopped communicating regularly with members of the family, and then after they last saw her on a video call the texts were different than normal.
“We’re from Kenya, and sometimes we mix English and a language called Swahili,” Wainaina recalled. “We mix a word of English and a word of Swahili, so I can tell that’s her. But then, on March 5, I texted her and asked her something. She texted back, and it was only English. So now that I know what I know, maybe it wasn’t her.”
The family reached out to the man after concerns about her whereabouts arose, only to discover that, according to him, she left him without a trace also. He said she left in a dark SUV and he never saw her again.
The brothers, Wainaina and Chris Munga Gakwa, believe Hightman may have more information than he has shared and is holding back, according to 8 News Now.
Wainaina told the station last September, “I think that’s false. That’s a false story, something he was just saying to get the police off his porch,” pointing to how he allegedly robbed her of her money after she was reported missing in March 2022.
The boyfriend has been accused of transferring $3,700 out of her bank account into his and changing her online banking password. The relatives believe he even maxed out her credit card and deleted her email account. Records show Hightman used her credit card to max out $3,230 worth of purchases, including a Walmart run where he bought a shovel, a pair of pants, and a pair of boots.
The finacé said to authorities spending all of her money was a strategy to get her to emerge from wherever she was. The logic was without access to money or her credit cards, she would have to contact someone.
Police later arrested him. Hightman, however, pleaded not guilty on June 8, 2022, to two counts of theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property, and unlawful use of a credit card, all felony charges, the Gillette News Record reports. He was released on a $10,000 bond.
A trial on the charges is scheduled for April 3.
Still, the family believes law enforcement is moving slowly — not only in the criminal case against Hightman but also in the missing person case. Though he is a “person of interest” in her missing, police have not identified him as a suspect. Gakwa’s loved ones have been particularly frustrated with the responses they’ve gotten from the county prosecutor’s office.
“They always say this to me, which is really frustrating: ‘Irene is the victim, so if anybody has a question, Irene should call,’” Wainaina told the Gillette News Record in October. “I say ‘Well, there’s a chance Irene is not alive. So, the victim is not here.’”
“We’re not trying to annoy anybody. We’re just trying to follow up and find justice for my sister,” Wainaina added.
CNN reports that the investigation is still going on. Brent Wasson, deputy police chief of the Gillette Police Department, told the news outlet, “We have no updates to share at this time.”