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Family still searching for answers five months after mysterious Wyoming disappearance of Irene Gakwa

The 32-year-old Kenya native was last seen by family via video call on February 24, 2022.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Christopher Gakwa told Dateline about the disappearance of his sister, Irene.

On February 24, 2022, 32-year-old Irene Gakwa participated in a video call with her father. “That’s the last time she ever talked to a family member,” Christopher said.

Christopher told Dateline that the Gakwa family is very close. “Growing up, every weekend we would hang out with family,” Christopher he said. “It was always a good time.” And his younger sister, Irene? “She’s very kind, loving,” Christopher said. “She is a very good person.”

Irene Gakwa
Irene GakwaChristopher Gakwa

The Gakwas are from Kenya and most of the family still lives there, including their parents. Christopher, however, moved to the United States and settled in Idaho. “I’ve lived in Boise for about 10 years,” he said.

About three years ago, Irene moved to America as well. “She was studying to be a nurse,” Christopher said. “She was going to a college called College of Western Idaho.”

Christopher said Irene lived with him for about nine months before she moved out. “She rented a room from someone,” Christopher told Dateline in a text.

Christopher said that sometime in the summer of 2021, his sister told him she wanted a change. “She was moving to Arizona -- because it was much warmer,” he said.

A few months later, Irene returned to Idaho to spend the holidays. “She came to my house for Thanksgiving,” Christopher said. That was the last time Christopher saw his sister in person.

And then on February 24, 2022, that video chat. “She talked to my dad,” Christopher told Dateline. He said the two were just catching up.

Christopher told Dateline that he received a strange text from Irene in early March. “One night before bed, I texted her and she said that she was gonna change her number,” he said. “That just didn’t make sense.” He said Irene’s language in the text was also concerning. “The conversation was mostly English,” Christopher told Dateline. He said that he and Irene would normally text each other in Swahili, but all of Irene’s most recent responses to him had been in English.

Christopher said he also tried calling Irene. “She would say that her phone -- it’s not working,” Christopher recalled. “The microphone on the phone is not working -- I guess it had fallen in water.” Christopher told Dateline the broken microphone was Irene’s explanation for wanting to change her number. “And that to me just didn’t make any sense because you could just buy a new phone.”

Irene Gakwa
Irene GakwaIrene Gakwa

Christopher said he started to grow worried and reached out to their older brother in Kenya. “I texted my brother and I asked if he knew that she was changing the number and he said, ‘No.’” Christopher recalled.

Christopher wasn’t the only family member to express concern. “My dad called my brother and said they haven’t talked to Irene for a while,” Christopher said. “And that was kind of odd because [Irene] talked with my dad every day.”

At that point, Christopher said, he “had a bad gut feeling” and called the police. “That’s when we called the cops and sent them to the address we had for Arizona,” Christopher said. “Apparently she wasn’t there.” Christopher told Dateline other people were living at the address they had for Irene in Arizona, which he said threw his family for a loop.

The family then googled Irene’s name and an address in Wyoming popped up. “She apparently moved to Wyoming with her boyfriend, which we were not aware of,” he said. Irene’s boyfriend was Nathan Hightman. “He had been to my house a couple of times,” Christopher said, adding that he first met Hightman in March 2021. “I’ve come to learn that they met online.”

According to Christopher, the family reached out to Hightman who told them Irene had moved out two weeks earlier and that “she had gotten into a black SUV” and “he doesn’t know where she went.” Christopher said he directed the police to the address in Wyoming.

The Gillette Police Department is investigating Irene’s disappearance. On April 10, they announced in a press release that “Irene was last seen in a video call with her parents on February 24, 2022” and was reported missing by her brother on March 20, 2022. The release goes on to say that “detectives have interviewed Irene’s friends and associates and have executed approximately 24 search warrants in efforts to locate her” and that “digital evidence, including location data, is also being analyzed.”

The release states that “information obtained through [the] investigation suggests Irene went missing under suspicious circumstances.”

On May 11, the City of Gillette posted that on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, the Gillette Police Department arrested Nathan J. Hightman. The post says that “Hightman, a person of interest in the Irene Gakwa missing person case, has been charged 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.” It notes that “Irene is the victim of these crimes.” Hightman pleaded not guilty to all charges in June. He has not been charged with Irene’s disappearance.

Gillette Deputy Chief of Police Brent Wasson told Dateline in an email that Hightman is currently out on bond and awaiting trial for the “financial/intellectual property crimes.” Dateline reached out to Nathan Hightman, but calls went straight to voicemail. Dateline also reached out to Hightman’s attorney by both phone and email, but has yet to receive a response.

According to the City of Gillette’s May 11 post, “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.” It adds that detectives are “also requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.”

Deputy Chief Wasson said Irene’s “case is an active investigation and remains a priority for the Gillette Police Department,” but because “of the ongoing investigation, limited information has been released” and pointed to the information outlined in earlier press releases.

Christopher Gakwa told Dateline that along with investigators, he and his brother have also been looking for their baby sister. “We’ve been to Wyoming twice,” Christopher said. “I was just looking around town and areas she goes to, where she was living, and just everywhere.” The family also has a website called ‘Where is Irene’ dedicated to spreading awareness about Irene’s disappearance.

Irene Gakwa
Irene GakwaChristopher Gakwa

“If something happened to her, we definitely want the person responsible to face judgment,” Christopher said.

Irene Gakwa is 5’1”, 89 lbs., with black hair and brown eyes.

Anyone with information on Irene’s whereabouts is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at 307-682-5155.