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Memories of Irene: Family, friends gather to remember missing Gillette woman

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Irene Gakwa. Her name and the story of her disappearance one spring evening in Campbell County have captivated the hearts, minds and imaginations of thousands. 

The same question is being asked time and again: Where is Irene? It’s been asked in dozens of news publications, it’s constantly on the minds of her family, and it’s being whispered from one resident to another in Gillette, Wyoming, where a full-scale search effort spanning months is underway to find her. 

So far, nobody knows what happened to Irene; she’s simply vanished.

In a few short months, one year will have passed since Irene was last seen by her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, at the end of February 2022. Hightman has maintained she came home one night, filled garbage bags with clothes and left in a dark-colored SUV. He never reported her missing, has not cooperated with the investigation, and has not been seen among the ranks of residents who have taken it upon themselves to find her or any information that could help the police. 

Hightman is currently on the hook for multiple felonies relating to intellectual and financial crimes — including using her credit card to purchase a shovel and a pair of boots — that reportedly occurred shortly after she disappeared and is expected to stand trial in 2023, Campbell County court records say. 

The police investigation into the comings and goings of Hightman is ramping up; local and federal authorities recently served and executed a search warrant on his home, seizing multiple items of interest to their investigation, according to a statement from the City of Gillette. 

Exactly which investigation the warrant pertained to, whether it be the financial or intellectual crimes or Irene’s disappearance, has not been publicly stated. 

The efforts to find her, led by local residents Stacy Koester, Melissa Bloxom and Heidi Kennedy, are becoming more organized and sophisticated. They started with walking in groups along popular highways; this weekend, Nov. 12, they’ll be searching for Irene alongside a team of bloodhounds. 

Residents, including members of Irene’s family, gather on Old Highway 59 on July 2 for a search effort to help the Gillette police investigation (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

The story of Irene and her disappearance is growing as well, spreading to more and more readers outside the reach of local news outlets after being picked up by national news publications in the months after the story broke. 

But in a little coffee shop in downtown Gillette on a cool, calm October night, Irene became much more than a victim in an investigation or a headline or photo in a newspaper. She became a sister, a daughter and a woman who carried her dream of helping people to the United States. 

That night, Oct. 27, stories filled the air of a little, carefree girl who danced without inhibitions around the kitchen while singing songs in Swahili and of a girl who once took on a fire ant colony with her bare feet in Kenya. 

Memories

“She was daddy’s little girl,” said Chris Gakwa, one of Irene’s elder brothers. He recalled one night when their father came home from a work trip late at night and she ran out the door to meet him but stopped and started screaming. 

Fire ants were biting her, Chris explained, adding that he was always telling her to put on her shoes and, when he told her again, she shot back that the ants would bite her regardless of whether she had shoes on or not.

Then there was Irene fulfilling her role as the youngest sibling, which meant she was always ready to run off to alert their parents every time Chris put a toe out of line, he said, smiling as he remembered.

She loved doing her hair and getting dressed up for church on Sundays, the family wrote in a letter about Irene, and she especially loved going out to eat with her family after church where she would order her favorite meal of barbecue and fries. 

From elementary school to boarding school to college, both in Kenya and later in Gillette, family always remained important to Irene no matter where h professional or educational pursuits took her, according to the letter. 

She moved back home several times to be closer to her parents before moving to the United States to be closer to her brothers in Boise, Idaho, moving in with Chris where she was able to reconnect with them and their families. 

Irene Wairimu Gakwa, 32, went missing from the Gillette area in late February. (Gillette Police Department/City of Gillette)

“It was good to reconnect as although we talked on the phone often, we only saw each other every one to two years when we made a trip to Kenya,” her brothers wrote, adding that they were able to see how much she had grown and that their little sister was now a woman. 

“She had an opinion,” Kennedy Wainaina, Irene’s other brother, said with a smile, drawing chuckles from those in the coffee shop. “We always talked to her on the phone, but it’s different when you see someone in person. You see what they like, what they don’t.” 

Kennedy said his favorite memory of Irene was a time when they were all together at home in Kenya and went for a trip to the coast. 

Nothing extraordinary happened, according to Kennedy, but they were together and enjoyed each other’s company while they did a whole lot of nothing; they shared meals, relaxed and laid by the pool. 

It was good to eat meals together and catch up, Kennedy said, and it was nice to see her as the adult she was at that point. 

Stacy, who has been corresponding with the family since the beginning, read a prepared statement about the search for Irene, saying that the connection and dedication of the local search effort to Irene’s cause were solidified when they heard stories of Irene and how much she means to her family. 

“You could see the sparkle in their eyes and their faces lit up with pride and happiness as they shared stories of their little sister but those sparkles quickly dimmed as we discussed search efforts, giving the harsh reality and reminder that their baby sister is in fact missing,” Stacy read. 

Stacy Koester (left) and Melissa Bloxom give a safety and operational briefing ahead of a search effort in July. (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

Over the months, they’ve heard about Irene’s kind, gentle personality, and how she cared for others while always smiling and laughing, according to Stacy. 

“We watched videos of her dancing around the kitchen singing songs in Swahili, loving life, and enjoying the little moments,” Stacy read. “She was so vibrant, beautiful, and happy. Watching those videos made us feel like we were in that moment with her. She warmed our hearts so much.”

According to Stacy, though months have passed since Irene disappeared, the effort and the push to find her is only getting stronger. 

“From the beginning, what I’ve said is that we will not let this case go cold,” Stacy said. “We will not let it go quiet.”

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