Episode 054: Irene Gakwa

September 12, 2022

Irene Gakwa traveled across the world hoping to explore new horizons, but then she vanished without a trace, leaving her family with so many unanswered questions.

Episode Media
Irene Gakwa (Help Find Irene)
Irene Gakwa (Gillette PD)
Nathan Hightman (Gillette PD)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case that is still ongoing. It’s the story of a woman who traveled across the world hoping to explore new horizons, but she vanished without a trace, leaving her family with so many unanswered questions. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Irene Gakwa was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, the youngest of three children. According to her family, Irene was a quiet child, thoughtful and introverted, and this carried into her adulthood. She and her two brothers, Kennedy and Chris, became especially close as they grew older, supporting each other no matter where life took them. 

Kennedy and Chris eventually moved to the United States and settled in Boise, Idaho. Irene stayed in Kenya with her parents, where she graduated college and later got a job working in tourism. 

But by her late 20s, Irene was ready to try something new. She decided that she wanted to pursue a nursing career in the United States. Her parents were nervous about this decision. Irene was so shy; how would she handle traveling across the world?

But Irene was also an adult, and she would be with her brothers. So in May of 2019, 29-year-old Irene left her home in Kenya for a new life in Idaho.

Irene moved in with her brother Chris and his wife Gyoice, helping them with their children while also working in a nursing home and taking classes at the local community college. She was able to enjoy her independence with the support of her loving family.

Of course, this didn’t stop her parents from worrying about their youngest child. According to her father Francis, he would often ask Irene if she wanted to return to Kenya, but she would just reply, “Dad, I’m good. I have my own life now.”

And she did. Irene was thriving in Idaho. Her studies were going well, and she loved her job. She enjoyed spending time with her brothers and their families – they were always hanging out at each other’s houses and having weekend barbecues.

In early 2020, Irene told her sister-in-law Gyoice that she had met someone. She had been talking to a guy she’d connected with on Craigslist, a tech worker named Nathan Hightman. Gyoice was surprised, but she wanted to be supportive. She told Irene that she should bring Nathan around to the house sometime so he could meet the family.

Over the next year or so, Irene and Nathan had an on-again, off-again relationship, which her family later described as tumultuous. Her brothers didn’t particularly like Nathan; they thought he was controlling and not nearly good enough for their sister. He rarely wanted to spend time with Irene’s family, and when he did, he didn’t fit in. 

Eventually, Irene and Nathan moved in together, and her family saw her less and less. She started missing family events, and her brothers got the impression that Nathan was trying to isolate her.

Then, in July of 2021, Irene shocked her family by announcing that she and Nathan were moving to Wyoming. She would transfer to Gillette Community College to finish her nursing degree.

It was clear to Irene’s family that this move was Nathan’s idea. But they wanted to respect Irene’s decision, and she promised that she would come back to Idaho regularly and would keep in touch daily through texts and video calls. 

And for a while, Irene kept that promise. She messaged her family every day on their group chat, and she regularly called her parents in Kenya to check in on video. Irene also returned to Boise multiple times over the next few months. In November of 2021, the family all gathered at Chris and Gyoice’s house for Thanksgiving, where they cooked their favorite African dishes and stayed up late talking and laughing. When Irene left at the end of the week, she seemed happy and made plans to visit again in a few months.

But from then on, the family only saw Irene through her phone screen. She was still taking classes at the community college, and she and Nathan had broken up yet again. She complained a bit about the cold Wyoming winter, but otherwise, she seemed okay.

On February 24, 2022, Irene spoke with her parents on a video call, and Francis noticed that she seemed tired, worn out. Her hair was disheveled, which was unusual for Irene. Francis teased her a bit, reminding her to take care of herself and find time to relax.

That would be the last time anyone in the family saw Irene.

After February 24th, Irene stopped answering requests for video calls, and her text messages seemed off. Normally, Irene would chat with her family in a mixture of Swahili and Kenyan slang, but these latest messages were different, almost as if someone had used Google Translate to write them.

The content of the messages seemed out of place as well. One message read, “Dad, I dropped my phone in the water, and now the microphone doesn’t work.” Later, she texted her father, “I just want you to know I love and miss you and mom.” Francis felt uneasy, and texted her back, “We miss you… we want to see you, not just chat on WhatsApp… We love you always. You will… be my daughter forever.”

For an entire week, the odd messages continued. On March 3rd, the family received a message saying that Irene was unhappy with her life in Wyoming and was planning to move to Texas. This was completely unexpected – Irene didn’t know anyone in Texas, and she hadn’t mentioned anything like this to her family before. 

Then, the family received another odd message – Irene said that she got a new phone and wanted to be taken off the family cell phone plan. Her brothers were confused, but if Irene wanted to spend more money on her own phone plan, that was her choice. They didn’t see any cause for alarm until March 8th, when Irene’s WhatsApp account disappeared completely and she vanished from the group chat.

The family immediately knew something was wrong. Because of the shared phone plan, Kennedy and Chris were able to go through Irene’s phone records. They saw the last activity on her cell phone was on March 4th, when it stopped pinging on the network.  

They also found a number that Irene had called many times. It belonged to a close friend of hers in Wyoming. When the brothers reached out, the friend told them that she hadn’t seen Irene in a while and that they should check with Irene’s boyfriend, Nathan.

Kennedy and Chris were stunned. They thought that Irene and Nathan had broken up months ago, but according to Irene’s friend, they had gotten back together and were currently living in a three-bedroom house in Gillette. 

Unfortunately, the brothers’ relief was short-lived. When they called Nathan, he said that Irene wasn’t there. She had packed up and left weeks ago.

On March 20th, Kennedy called the Gillette Police Department and requested that an officer go to the house and check on Irene. The responding officer spoke with Nathan Hightman, but he repeated the same story he’d told Irene’s family – Irene had packed up her belongings in two plastic garbage bags and left in a dark-colored SUV. He hadn’t seen her since.

Detectives with the Gillette Police Department opened a missing persons investigation for Irene Gakwa. Her picture was sent to the media and the public was asked to call in with tips. For several weeks, investigators interviewed family members and anyone known to have interacted with Irene. By mid-April, they had executed over two dozen search warrants in their efforts to find the missing woman.

Irene’s brother Chris spoke with a local news outlet, saying, “We have a reason to believe that something terrible might have happened since she is not known for being silent for such a long time. She used to call our parents almost on a daily basis and also kept in touch with us. My sister is not a silent person… We believe she might not be okay.”

On April 14th, the Gillette Police Department released a statement about the investigation, indicating that they were following up on multiple leads. The most chilling of which suggested that Irene had been taken to a “rural area, mine site, or oil and gas location”. They believe she may have been taken there in a small SUV or crossover.

The department also revealed that they had a person of interest in the case. “[We] have been able to confirm that Irene lived with a man in Gillette up until her disappearance. The man is considered a person of interest; he has not made himself available to detectives looking to resolve questions that still exist in the investigation.”

Although police weren’t releasing his identity at the time, they were actively pursuing information from and about Nathan Hightman. They conducted multiple searches at his home in Gillette and began tracing his movements from late February into March. 

What they found was damning.

According to bank records, Nathan allegedly used Irene’s credit card on ten separate occasions after February 24th – the day she was last seen by her family. He charged over $3,000 using her card both online and in-person. In one instance, Nathan is seen on security video at Walmart in late February purchasing a pair of boots, pants, and a shovel using Irene’s card. Those exact items were later found in his home.

Nathan also allegedly transferred thousands of dollars from Irene’s bank account into his own, then changed the account password. He later told police that he had moved the money in an attempt to force Irene to contact him, but there is no indication that Irene has ever tried to access her own account after February 24th.

In addition to the banking evidence, digital forensics confirmed that Irene’s WhatsApp and email accounts were deleted from an IP address that traces back to Nathan Hightman. 

On May 10, 2022, Nathan Hightman was arrested in Wyoming. He was caught carrying bags of groceries he had just purchased with Irene’s bank card.

Nathan was charged with multiple felonies: two counts of theft, one count of unlawful use of a credit card, and two counts of crimes against intellectual property. Two weeks later, he pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on bond until his pretrial conference in November.

Although Nathan Hightman has been charged for his alleged theft of Irene’s assets, he has not been charged in connection to her disappearance, and Irene is still missing.

Since July, community members in Gillette have rallied together to find Irene and support her family. They have held candlelight vigils and hung posters around town. They have protested peacefully on the street in front of Irene and Nathan’s house, and they have conducted multiple ground and water searches in the area, turning over everything they find to police. One local resident paid for a digital billboard to display Irene’s picture and missing person information.

Several times a month, Irene’s siblings make the 800-mile drive between Boise and Gillette, joining in on the searches and talking to local media. They are determined to spread Irene’s story and bring their sister home.

Irene Gakwa is 32 years old. She is 5’1” and weighs approximately 89 lbs. She has black hair and brown eyes and was last seen by her family on a video call on February 24, 2022. You can see pictures of Irene as well as her missing poster on the podcast website.

Investigators are also requesting information about a silver or gray Subaru Crosstrek that may have been seen in the rural areas of Campbell County, Wyoming at the end of February. They are also looking for a 55-gallon drum that may have been abandoned in the area. 

If you have any information about the disappearance of Irene Gakwa, please contact the Gillette Police Department at 307-682-5155. No tip is too small or insignificant – it could be the clue needed to bring Irene home.