Community on the hunt for missing Gillette woman
GILLETTE, Wyo. — Nearly five months have passed since 32-year-old Irene Gakwa went missing from her Gillette home in February with local police continuing to investigate “suspicious” circumstances surrounding her disappearance.
The only explanation for her disappearance, thus far, has come from her fiancé, 38-year-old Nathan Hightman, whom police have identified as a person of interest in Irene’s case and who is currently charged with multiple felonies for using Irene’s banking, credit card, and email accounts without permission.
Hightman claims Irene came home one night in February, announced she was leaving Gillette, and departed the residence with bags of clothes in a dark-colored SUV of unknown make and model, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in his case.
Shortly after she left, Hightman reportedly removed all funds from Irene’s bank account to get her to contact him when she needed money, though she never did and hasn’t been heard from since, per the affidavit.
Hightman has since remained uncooperative with the investigation and has refused to answer police questions regarding Irene’s disappearance, according to a statement from the Gillette Police Department requesting the public’s assistance in locating her.
Without further updates on the investigation being provided by the GPD, the question remains: where is Irene Gakwa?
It’s a question that Gillette residents Stacy Koester and Melissa Bloxom hope to help find the answer to, with neither of them buying Hightman’s explanation for Irene’s disappearance and taking it upon themselves to launch a community-level search for Irene.
Search and protest
More than 20 people showed up at a local gas station on July 2, including several of Irene’s family members, with a common goal: to set out and look for anything that could help the police find Irene.
Mosquitos and waist-high grass deterred none of them as they walked in four groups along Old Highway 59 with two groups on either side of the highway heading east and the others heading west.
For hours they searched for anything that appeared suspicious or out of place, putting up marker flags anywhere something of interest was seen in the grass.
A similar effort took place shortly after on Highway 59 to the north, with a smaller group looking alongside the roadway near the Campbell County Land Fill.
“We found some peculiar things on Old Highway 59 and all of it was reported to law enforcement,” Bloxom said of the search efforts, though they did not find a barrel or Irene.
The search efforts were followed up by a peaceful protest outside Hightman’s residence, which reportedly prompted a police response after Hightman called to report the protesters for harassing him, Bloxom said.
“I really feel like we got to him,” Bloxom said, adding that they were outside Hightman’s house until 11 p.m. after police told them they were allowed to remain and protest if none of the neighbors complained.
She said they could hear Hightman inside his residence yelling during the protest while he stomped around and slammed doors. At one point, a property owner let them access a fence near where Hightman was peeking out of a window at the protesters.
“We were just having a one-sided conversation with him and letting him know that we’re not going anywhere, that Irene is missed, and that we could go away if he would just cooperate with the police,” Bloxom said.
She said that the main goal behind the effort is to not let the case go cold by being as loud as they can be and to keep getting Irene’s name out there.
“I think it needs to be said what we’re protesting,” Bloxom said. “This is not a political thing, we’re not out there raising hell, we just want him to talk to the cops.”
We care that Irene disappeared
“I think (Hightman’s) original story that she left in a dark-colored SUV is a total cliché story,” Koester said. “That’s straight off Lifetime movie network. I think at this point he’s told so many lies, he knows that when he starts talking, he’s not going to be able to cover up all of those lies.”
She dismissed the possibility that he could simply be trying to protect himself from prosecution by exercising his constitutional rights to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination when asked.
“I think, honestly, he didn’t think anyone would care whether Irene went missing because she wasn’t well known here,” Koester said. “He didn’t count on there being a group of girls who actually do care a lot about a woman we’ve never met.”
Bloxom said that Hightman’s unwillingness to cooperate with the police investigation, as well as his declinations to attend a recent candlelight vigil and search effort for Irene, is suspicious.
“If my spouse went missing, I would never be home,” Bloxom said. “I would be out looking for them night and day because I love them. He is not doing that. He didn’t even report her missing. He just made no effort.”
Irene was reported missing by her family in March 2022, nearly a month after Irene was last seen by Hightman in Gillette, according to an April investigation update from the GPD.
When asked if Hightman may be trying to avoid a community opinion that appears ready to convict him, Bloxom said that it’s possible and that everyone has the right to remain silent.
But his attitude and actions are not helping him, she said, and are only making him look guilty.
“He could better himself to change that opinion if he would just quit being so nuts,” Bloxom said. “To lock yourself up in a house and cover up all the windows; he wouldn’t have the mob mentality if he just put forth a little effort to pretend that he gave a s—. He just doesn’t care that Irene is gone.”
Another search effort will be underway tomorrow morning, July 16, at the Sinclair station on the corner of N. Gurley Avenue and Laramie Street. The search will be followed by another peaceful protest outside Hightman’s house.