Family seeks answers in 7-month search for woman who went missing in Wyoming

Courtesy of Kennedy Wainaina

(NEW YORK) -- Family members of Irene Gakwa, a 32-year-old Black woman who went missing in Wyoming, are still seeking answers to what happened to her over 7 months into the search.

"It gets harder and harder each day," Chris Gakwa, her older brother, said in an interview with ABC News.

Before she went missing, Irene Gakwa, a native of Kenya, spoke daily to her mother and father who reside in Kenya through Whatsapp, but those conversations came to an end Feb. 24 – the last time her family says they heard from her. Her brothers filed a missing person's report March 20 after not hearing from her for almost a month.

Irene Gakwa moved to the United States from Kenya in 2019 in hopes of attending nursing school, her family says. She had attended the College of Western Idaho and "did well," according to her brother.

"When she first moved here, it was a little different. It took her a little while to get used to everything," Kennedy Wainaina, her oldest brother told ABC News. "It was good to see her let loose and make friends with people."

Wainaina and Chris Gakwa who both reside in Idaho, say they would see their sister almost every weekend until she met her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman.

"We're a very close family," Chris Gakwa told ABC News. "She would come to hang out with us...she had some friends and would hang out, but things didn't go well when she met Nate...That's when things started going downhill and I feel like Nate is the one who kind of pushed her away from the family."

Her brothers say they only met Hightman a couple times after Irene Gakwa met him on Craigslist – adding they were not aware how long the couple were dating. Irene moved over 700 miles away from Boise, Idaho, to Gillette, Wyoming, with Hightman without her family's knowledge, her brothers say.

"From day one when I met him, I just didn't like him to tell you the truth but I never told her," Chris Gakwa told ABC News. "I just knew he was trouble."

He says the couple had a rocky relationship and Irene Gakwa would call Chris' wife when they were having issues.

At one point, authorities in Gillette, Wyoming, investigated claims by Hightman that Irene Gakwa "stole money" to purchase airline tickets to Kenya, according to the Gillette Police Department. But police found no merit to the allegations and dropped the case against her, they said.

In April, almost a month after Irene Gakwa's disappearance, Hightman became "a person of interest," according to a press release from the police department in Gillette, Wyoming. The press release stated Hightman had been charged with a handful of felonies – including two counts of theft, one count of unlawful use of a credit card and two counts of crimes against intellectual property. Irene Gakwa was listed as the victim of these crimes. The press release also stated, "Irene went missing under suspicious circumstances."

Hightman was arrested for these charges, but later released on a $10,000 bond, Gillette Police Deputy Chief Brent Wasson said in the press release. Hightman pleaded not guilty to the charges, Wasson said.

Hightman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News. Current attorney information for Hightman was not immediately available.

His former attorney Steven Titus told the Gillette News Record in May that "he had not had time to talk with Hightman at length" about the five felony charges and that his client has consistently said he had nothing to do with Irene Gakwa's disappearance. Titus also told the paper that police did not have enough probable cause to charge Hightman for her disappearance, which brought on the five non-violent charges instead.

Irene Gakwa's brothers and Stacy Koester, a volunteer from Gillette who leads a search team to find the woman, claim they have not been updated by police as often as they said they should've been.

"Every time we reach out to them, they give us the same answers," Koester, who never met Irene Gakwa and updates her brothers regularly on the search, told ABC News. "They keep saying there are no updates to provide and they'll keep working on the case…it's like we're going in circles."

The Gillette Police Department did not comment on the family's claims regarding their response, but Wasson provided ABC News with a press release about an Oct. 13 search of Hightman's residence.

"Analysis of evidence has led to the development of additional cause to return to the residence that Irene shared with Nathan Hightman. Detectives applied for and were granted additional search warrants to further the investigation," the release said.

No further updates on the search were provided by Wasson and no arrests have been made since then.

"I've had several deaths in my family...my mother and two sisters, so I know what missing a family member feels like," Koester said regarding her interest in the search.

Koester says she has reached out to and tried to schedule meetings with Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, unsuccessfully. Despite her failed efforts, Koester says she leads a search team of 15 to 20 people for Irene weekly. They search for any evidence that may help find her – including a 55-gallon metal drum that police said they believe was burned in Hightman's backyard around the time she was reported missing and that they have asked for public assistance in locating.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Dusty Martin, the owner of Gillette car dealership Auto Scene, says Hightman and Irene Gakwa sold her silver Acura in January right before she was reported missing.

"The whole encounter was very odd," Martin told ABC News in an interview. "Nathan was an odd character and I thought it was weird because Irene had to okay everything with him. Every move she made, she had to look at him," Martin said.

The couple sold the car to Martin for $2,000, he says. Hightman was "very persistent" in selling the car although it was registered and titled in her name, according to Martin. Irene Gakwa said they were going to trade her car in for a new one, so Martin says he insisted on showing some cars he had in his lot, but Hightman told Martin they had already found one.

As the search for Irene Gakwa continues, Koester says she 's been trying to draw attention to the case through social media, creating a TikTok dedicated to bringing the missing woman home. The account has garnered over 62,000 likes.

"I just feel like if Irene was white with blonde hair and blue eyes, police would be having a press conference every week," Koester, who is white, told ABC News. She noted the law enforcement response to the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman who went missing last year and was later found dead. "I feel personally that [Irene's] case didn't get the attention it deserved."

Despite the lack of media coverage that Irene Gakwa's family and supporters say the case has been receiving, they won't be giving up on the search anytime soon. The family created a website detailing what they say is a timeline that led up to her disappearance.

"I wish I could do more, but we try to do the best we can," Wainaina said.

"I've never met her, but I want to help find her and help her family in any way that I can," Koester said.

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