Irene Gakwa is a 32 y/o woman who has been missing from Gilette, Wyoming since around late February/early March 2022.
Irene is a Kenyan woman who moved to the USA in 2019 so that she could work in healthcare. Irene’s parents still live in Kenya but two of her brothers live in Meridian, Idaho.
“She’s always been a daddy’s girl,” said her father, Francis Kambo in an interview with CNN.
“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,” he also said.
Irene is a very petite woman, around 5 foot tall and she weighed around 90 lbs. Her parents have told the media that they worried about her move to America. “We sometimes had to remind her to get out of the house and get some sunlight,” her father said. “But we decided since her brothers are there, why not?”
When Irene first arrived in the US, she lived with her brother Chris Munga, and his wife, Gyoice Abatey, in Meridian. Her sister-in-law has said that Irene is a sweet, fun-loving person who started her mornings with a cup of tea and enjoyed cooking, shopping and watching Nigerian movies. “She’s such a free spirit, so caring, goofy, she just goes with the flow,” Gyoice said.
The two women became very close and they took a girl’s trip to LA in 2020. It was on this trip that Irene told Gyoice that she was dating Nathan Hightman. Gyoice has said that Irene spent a lot of time talking to Nathan on the phone but that she did not share many details about their relationship.
Not too much is known about their relationship. We do know that Irene met Nathan at some point in 2020 on Craigslist. According to Irene’s family, the couple had a rocky relationship and broke up several times. According to CNN, her family were under the impression that as of 2022, the couple had split for good.
I can’t find too much online about Nathan prior to this. He was 39 at the time of her disappearance.
Nathan and Irene first moved in together in Meridian. Irene had started nursing school at the College of Western Idaho there.
According to a timeline on the website made to find Irene – whereisirene.com, the couple moved together to Gilette, Wyoming in July 2021.
Following the move, Irene transferred her studies to Gillette Community College.
Her father has said that he would sometimes ask Irene if she ever wanted to return to Kenya.
“She’d tell me, ‘Dad, I’m good. I have my own life now,'” Francis said.
After her move to Wyoming, Irene would return to visit her family in Meridian often. Her final visit was Thanksgiving 2021. She went to the home of her brother Munga. They all made their favorite African delicacies, including goat barbecue, jollof rice and ugali, a form of corn meal popular in Kenya.
Irene’s speciality was cabbage with tomatoes – her mother had made it for their family when they were growing up. She taught Gyoice how to make it during this Thanksgiving trip.
The last time that Irene’s family spoke to her face-to-face was via a video call on February 24, 2022.
Her father Francis has said that something seemed off during this call. He said that he teased Irene that she looked hungry and tired. He told CNN that her smile was more subdued and her normally neat braided hair was unkempt.
Irene told Francis that she was exhausted and his advice to her was “Make sure you drink hot milk and relax,”.
Irene usually spoke to her parents every other day, and by late February, her parents began to worry when she did not answer any of their video calls.
Someone using Irene’s phone did send texts to her family though, but they thought these messages were weird.
Instead of the mix of Swahili and Kenyan slang Irene usually texted in, the messages were in stilted English — like someone was using Google Translate to send them, said Wainaina, her oldest brother.
“The texts would be out of place,” her father said.
In early March — between the last video call and the day she was reported missing — her parents received some short WhatsApp messages from her account. Some made excuses for why she wasn’t doing video calls.
“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.”
I have read some conflicting dates of the last message that Irene sent but I believe it was likely around March 4. When her phone records were later looked at, this was the last day her phone was found to be active.
On March 8, 2022, Irene’s WhatsApp account was deleted. Her phone number was disconnected two days later, March 10.
Irene’s family filed a missing person report on March 20, 2022.
Irene’s family started their own investigation into her disappearance. Irene and her two brothers shared a cell phone plan, so thankfully, they were able to access her phone records quickly. They contacted one of Irene’s friends and that is how they found out that Irene and Nathan were still living together at the time she disappeared.
A police officer interviewed Nathan on March 20, the day that the missing person report was filed. He told the officer he last saw Irene in late February. His story was that she came home one night, packed her clothing in two plastic bags and left in a dark-colored SUV.
According to court documents, Nathan changed her banking passwords and deleted her Gmail account.
All the changes were made from an IP address associated with Nathan and they were all made after the date he told police Irene had moved out.
“This would indicate it was Nathan Hightman accessing Irene’s account, removing money and changing the password to deny access to Irene,” the affidavit said. “These transactions began on February 25, 2022, and continued through March 2022.”
When police spoke to neighbors of Nathan and Irene, it was discovered that Nathan purchased a 55 gallon drum on February 24. This was the last day that Irene spoke to her family. Neighbors saw him burning the drum the following day.
On February 25, 2022. Nathan used her credit card to buy a shovel, boots and jeans from the Gilette Walmart.
He told police he hadn’t heard from her since. He also said he withdrew money from her bank account so she would be forced to contact him if she needed money. He took over $3,000 from one bank account and maxed out her credit card by spending $3,200 on it. There is info from the affidavit ‘He allegedly transferred money from her account eight times for a total of $3,666.46.’
Irene’s brothers contacted Nathan multiple times to try to get her belongings back from him, Nathan is also thought to be in possession of Irene’s passport. He has declined to give the family back anything.
Police have said that Nathan is considered a person of interest in her disappearance and has “not made himself available to detectives looking to resolve questions that exist in the investigation.”
“We believe he has information pertaining to the disappearance of Irene, but he has elected not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Gillette police detective Dan Stroup told CNN.
On May 10, 2022 at 3:30 p.m.,the Gillette Police Department arrested Nathan and charged him with two felony counts of theft, one felony count of unlawful use of a credit card, and two felony counts of crimes against intellectual property. They said that Irene is the victim of these crimes.
They also asked the public to provide information:
Detectives continue to process information obtained through tips, leads and searches. Detectives are asking the public for any information concerning a gray or silver-colored Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates which may have been seen trespassing on private property or appearing out of place in rural areas of Campbell County between February 24, 2022 and March 20, 2022. The Gillette Police Department is also requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.
Police have issued over 24 search warrants in this case to date.
Police in Gilette made this statement on May 11, 2022.
“Information obtained through investigation suggests Irene went missing under suspicious circumstances.”
Irene’s two brothers have been traveling to Wyoming from Idaho regularly, to search for their sister. This info about their search is from CNN:
They’ve visited morgues and hospitals. They’ve checked shelters for unhoused people. They’ve launched a website, whereisirene.com. They’ve asked local authorities to check whether she joined the US military — an idea she briefly entertained.
Some residents of Gillette, a city of 32,000 in northeastern Wyoming, have rallied to find her. Wearing T-shirts that read, “Where’s Irene?” they’ve hosted weekend search parties and canvassed neighborhoods seeking permission to put up missing person signs. It’s not unusual to see images of Gakwa posted in the neighborhood where she lived with her boyfriend.
“No family should ever have to go to bed at night wondering where their loved one is,” said Stacy Koester, who lives in Gillette and has been organizing searches with a group of local women since April.
They’ve mapped out areas to search and marked off where they’ve already looked so they don’t go over the same place twice, Koester said.
“We promised her father and her brothers that we will never stop searching until we bring her home or they have answers,” she added. “That’s our goal. We are their family here in Gillette.”
Koester and other neighbors also have gathered outside Hightman’s home, holding signs and chanting, “Nate, where’s Irene?”
Irene’s 33rd birthday was in July 2022. Her nephews said that they thought if the threw her a birthday party, she would come home. The family held a vigil for Irene over Zoom.
“Whether we meet in this life or the next, know that you’re absolutely loved,” one friend said during the vigil.
Irene’s sister-in-law Gyoice has spoken about how her kids are handling their aunt’s disappearance.
“My children don’t understand why auntie is not calling them, how she just disappeared. Sometimes I just imagine her walking through the door, and saying, ‘Why are you looking for a grown woman like me?’ As the days go by and nothing happens, we don’t know what to do.”
“I just want to know the truth,” her father told CNN.
“I’m still hopeful, but my hope is dwindling.”
Francis has said that he and his wife pray for Irene every night. He is the voice for the family as Irene’s mother is too distraught to face the media.
“She was my only daughter. I spoiled her and she took advantage of that,” he said. “She had not introduced Nathan to me — that’s what kills me.”
Some days, he’s optimistic she’ll make it home for Christmas. But most days, not so much.
“I just want to know the truth. I’m still hopeful, but my hope is dwindling. She knows my number,” he added.
“The fact that she has not called …”
Nathan was originally due in court on September 8 for a pre-trial hearing. This was postponed and rescheduled to November 3. Nathan has pleaded not guilty to two counts of theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property and unlawful use of a credit card, all felonies.
Nathan has been freed on a $10,000 bond.
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