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Hot on the trail: Tracking, cadaver dogs join effort to find missing Gillette woman

GILLETTE, Wyo. – Boots thumped against the pavement, and snow crunched underfoot in the cold mid-morning hours on Nov. 12 as the search for 32-year-old Irene Gakwa, who went missing from the Gillette area earlier this year, continued. 

This time, the search was led by teams of K9s and their handlers from Justice Take Flight, a non-profit Colorado organization dedicated to locating missing people. 

Each dog specialized in certain areas. Yeti, an Alaskan Malamute, along with his handler and Executive Director of Justice Takes Flight Britney Hartman, specialize in HRD, or human remains detection. Thor, a bloodhound, and handler Justin Copeland focus on tracking missing people. Luna, a labrador and Catahoula mix, has been certified in locating missing people but more recently has switched gears to become a cadaver dog with her handler, Nickey Copeland. 

Nickey Copeland and Luna, a Labrador and Catahoula mix, prepare to join the search on Pathfinder Circle (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

One by one, the dogs led the way. Noses to the ground and tails held high, groups of searchers were led along Pathfinder Circle, Warlow Drive, and eventually outside city limits towards Fairview Road. 

Though several months have passed since Irene was last seen by Nathan Hightman, 39, who remains a person of interest in her disappearance and is charged with various financial and intellectual crimes against her, Hartman and the other handlers believed their dogs were on the trail. 

Justin Copeland and Thor, a bloodhound, wait patiently for their turn to begin searching along Garner Lake Road (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

Hartman says there are different theories for how long a scent can stay in a particular place: a missing person’s scent can stick around for as long as 30 days but the scent of a cadaver, or human remains, can stay in place for much longer. 

“We’ve done cases that were a couple of years old,” Hartman said. “They (dogs) can definitely do it, but I think there are a lot of theories between the two disciplines.”

Of the three dogs on the scent that day, only Luna has ever found remains, albeit animal remains, though she did find a section of disturbed earth during an unrelated search that could have proved promising but was never searched by authorities, according to Nicky. 

Thor, who is 18 months old, has done really well in practice and training sessions but hasn’t had success in the field, according to Justin, who says the bloodhound doesn’t care for cadaver scent and focuses on locating people who are alive. 

Stacy Koester (left), Nickey Copeland, and other searchers discuss the next course of action after the trail led to eastbound I-90 (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

Stacy Koester, one of the original organizers of the search efforts to find Irene, said the dogs didn’t locate anything definitive during the two days they searched, though all of the dogs seemed to track the same direction: east of Gillette to Fairview Road. 

Koester said the search didn’t go the way she expected, though she wasn’t sure what exactly that was since working alongside tracking and cadaver dogs is a new experience. 

“It’s a new area for us, bringing in this team, and it’s a learning curve,” Koester said, though she remains hopeful and is committed to finding Irene. 

Hartman and her team will be returning in a few weeks to continue the search, according to Koester, who said the next effort will also be aided by drones but didn’t have a definite date set as of Nov. 15.