(NewsNation) — Irene Gakwa, 32, thrived upon her move to America. The recent immigrant from Kenya lived with her family in Idaho before moving to Gillette, Wyoming.
While in Idaho, Gakwa split time living with her brothers, making friends and taking classes in hopes of becoming a nurse. Then, she met a man on Craigslist named Nathan Hightman.
“It seemed OK. 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,’” Gakwa’s brother Kennedy Wainaiana recalled.
Wainaiana learned that in the summer of 2021, Gakwa moved with Hightman to Wyoming. The couple was engaged.
But Wainaiana grew concerned when he noticed that Gakwa’s texts had changed.
“We’re from Kenya and sometimes we mix English and a language called Swahili,” Wainaiana said.
He added that “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 in English. So now that I know what I know, maybe it wasn’t her.”
Still, Wainaiana is desperate to know more. Gakwa was reported missing in March.
Hightman told police that Gakwa packed clothing into two plastic bags and announced that she was leaving Gillette, Wyoming. He said she entered a dark-colored SUV and left the area.
“I think that’s false,” Wainaiana said. “That’s a false story, something he was just saying to get the police off his porch.”
Police were back on his porch soon enough. They arrested Hightman and charged him with draining Gakwa’s bank accounts, deleting her email account and using her credit card at Walmart to buy a shovel, a pair of boots and a pair of pants.
Police report that Hightman said he did it to force her to contact him in the event she needed money.
Stacy Koester never met Gakwa and is not a professional searcher, but that hasn’t stopped her from putting in hundreds of hours of time looking for her.
Koester organized a search with horses that specialize in human decomposition, used cadaver dogs, and covered hundreds of miles.
“There’s a lot of vast open country and one main road may have 50 to 60 side roads, twists and turns. So, it’s covering the areas and making sure that you don’t go over those same places repeatedly,” Koester said.
Wyoming Truth journalist Jennifer Kocher is amazed at the determination of the searchers.
“I’ve covered many missing person cases, and this one felt different because nobody at the searches knew who she was,” Kocher said.
Police have asked the public to be on the lookout for a 55-gallon metal drum that could be burned and abandoned.
“Most recent searches are kind of zeroing in on that barrel, which helps save time too because you can see a barrel from … in some cases, along the highway, so we’re kind of clumping through stuff. I have a ski pole that I use,” Kocher said.
Meanwhile, the use of social media to find Gakwa is making for a bizarre twist in the case. Search organizer Stacy Koester was hit with a protective stalking order by none other than Nathan Hightman. He objected to her using his name and other information on TikTok.
“I was blown away by this because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m looking for a missing woman,” Koester said.
Back in Idaho, “my parents spend sleepless nights,” Wainaiana said. “Just tell us the truth.”
NewsNation has reached out to Hightman’s attorney. We have not heard back yet.
Stacy Koester is expected to appear in court Thursday to deal with the protective stalking order that’s been filed against her.
Anyone with information on the case is urged to call the Gillette Police Department at 307-682-5155.