Gillette, WY

Searching for Answers: The Unsettling Disappearance of Irene Gakwa

Fatim Hemraj
Irene GakwaPhoto byCNN

Irene Gakwa had always dreamed of a life in America, and a rewarding career as a nurse. After she turned 30, she told her parents she was leaving Kenya, where she had been born and raised, to start the next chapter of her life. Irene was ready for a new journey — one with unlimited possibilities.

In May 2019, Irene moved in with her brother Chris, and her sister-in-law Gyoice, who lived in Idaho with their young children. She adored being an aunt and spending time with her nieces and nephews. She found a job at a group home caring for the elderly and enrolled in a nursing program at the College of Western Idaho. Irene had never been happier.

Irene Meets Nathan Hightman on Craigslist

In the summer of 2020, Irene met Nathan Hightman on Craigslist, and they started dating. Nathan grew up in California. At 18, he moved to Idaho alone, cutting off his entire family. Those who knew Nathan describe him as a recluse computer whiz who fantasized about a life of luxury. He had previously worked in tech but was unemployed when he met Irene.
Nathan HightmanPhoto byCounty17

Irene told loved ones Nathan was controlling and possessive. At one point, she ended the relationship and her parents were relieved as they weren’t too fond of Nathan, after all, he was jobless and lived off Irene’s money. Unfortunately, the breakup was short-lived. Fearing their disapproval, Irene kept the fact she had rekindled her relationship with Nathan a secret.

In July 2021, Irene and Nathan moved 800 miles away to Gillette, Wyoming, and Irene transferred to a nursing program at Gillette Community College.

Loved Ones Receive Strange Texts From Irene

On February 24, 2022, Irene spoke to her parents over Whatsapp video chat. They noticed she looked tired and unkempt. They feared for her well-being and as it turned out, that they had every right to be concerned.

The couple never heard from their daughter again. Every time they requested to video chat, they received strange messages from Irene's Whatsapp account, claiming her camera was broken and that she could only text. The messages were written in perfect English despite the fact that Irene always spoke to her family in Swahili and Kenyan slang.
Irene with her brothers Chris & KennedyPhoto byABC

On March 3, 2022, Irene’s brothers, Chris and Kennedy, received a bizarre message from Irene’s Whatsapp account that she was moving to Texas. Shortly after, her Whatsapp account disappeared — it had been deleted.

Since they were on a family plan, Chris and Kennedy were able to gain access to Irene’s phone records and they reached out to a female friend who revealed that Irene was living with Nathan in Gillette, Wyoming. Up until this point, her family thought she was single and living in Idaho.

Loved ones believe Nathan convinced Irene to move to Gillette to slowly isolate her from her friends and family — a common tactic among abusers.

Irene was officially reported missing by her family on March 20, 2022.

Neighbors Saw Nathan Burning an Oil Drum

Nathan told the authorities he last heard from Irene on February 24th when she told him she was leaving him and moving to Texas. He said she packed her belongings in two plastic garbage bags and got into a dark-colored SUV — a story that no one, not Irene’s family or investigators, bought. Irene didn’t know anyone in Gillette, let alone in Texas.

Neighbors reported they saw Nathan burning something in a 55-gallon oil drum in his backyard the day after Irene disappeared. Investigators searched his home and although they did not find the oil drum, they did find a pair of boots and shovel that had been purchased with Irene’s credit card. Nathan changed Irene’s banking password, transferred thousands of dollars to his own bank account, and used her credit card over 40 times.

Irene’s Whatsapp account and Gmail account were both deleted — from Nathan’s cellphone. The IP address proved the strange messages from Irene’s Whatsapp account had not been written by her, as suspected.

On April 10, 2022, Nathan was officially named a suspect in Irene’s disappearance. He admitted stealing her money and said he thought it would capture her attention and force her to reestablish contact with him.

On May 10, 2022, Nathan, 39, was charged with five counts of financial fraud and on June 14, 2023, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

The Search for Irene Gakwa Continues
Irene GakwaPhoto byWhere Is Irene

Despite overwhelming evidence linking Nathan to Irene’s sudden disappearance, he has never been charged with anything other than fraud in her case. Sadly, he refuses to cooperate with the investigation.

Authorities are asking for anyone who may have seen a silver Subaru with Idaho plates in a remote area of Gillette, Wyoming on February 24/25, 2022, to come forward, as it may just be the missing link to finding Irene.

“She’s always been a daddy’s girl. She was supposed to come home for Christmas this year. Now I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.” — Irene’s father, Francis Kambo, 2022

Irene Gakwa was 32 when she vanished on February 24, 2022. She was 5'1" and weighed 90 pounds. Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for any information leading to her whereabouts. Contact the Gillette Police Department at (307) 686–5238 or submit an anonymous tip online.

Sources: CTV News, Where Is Irene, The Crime Wire, Forbes, Wyoming Truth

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