GILLETTE, Wyo. — A missing Gillette woman’s fiancé pleaded guilty in District Court Tuesday, March 29, to three felonies for intellectual and financial crimes against her.
Judge James Causey presided over a change of plea hearing for Nathan Hightman, 39, after Hightman signed an agreement regarding the charges. Attorneys have filed a fourth amended felony document.
Before the court, Hightman pleaded guilty to three crimes: felony theft, a felony against intellectual property and felony unlawful use of credit cards. With his plea, Hightman could face up to 23 years in prison and $23,000 in fines.
During the hearing, Hightman admitted to transferring thousands of dollars out of Irene Gawka’s bank account to his own, charging purchases to two credit cards and deleting her Gmail account, all without permission.
Campbell County Attorney Nathan Henkes said he had discussed the agreement with other attorneys inside and outside Campbell County and ensured Gakwa’s family understands the deal.
After Hightman pleaded guilty came the discussion of bond.
Hightman’s defense attorney, Dallas Lamb, said Hightman should be allowed out on bond because Hightman, a Campbell County homeowner, has no other convictions and the crimes were financial and directed at one individual. Hightman’s decision to stay in the community for the past 10 months despite protests proved he wouldn’t leave the area, Lamb said. It would be “incredibly foolhardy” for Hightman to leave the area before the sentencing, Lamb said.
Henkes, on the other hand, argued Hightman was a flight risk given that he’s facing significant jail time and fines and doesn’t have local employment, at least to his knowledge. If Hightman were allowed out on bond, he should have to surrender his passport, Henkes said.
Lamb said that Hightman should be allowed to keep his passport, as it’s his sole identification document.
Causey said that before the March 28 hearing, Hightman could have been found innocent, so he had more reason to stay. He ordered that Hightman be taken into custody.
Hightman must participate in a pre-sentence investigation and complete an addiction severity index.
Kennedy Wainaina, one of Irene’s brothers, said after the hearing that he was surprised to see deputies handcuff Hightman. He didn’t think Hightman would be taken into custody.
“I think it’s still sinking into me,” he said.
He said that while the case isn’t over, it’s a little victory. There’s still the sentencing, and Gakwa’s still missing. Hightman’s a person of interest in her disappearance.
Gakwa was reported missing by her family March 20, 2022. They told police she hadn’t been seen since a video call Feb. 24.
Wainaina said his parents are in Kenya and with the time difference, he doesn’t believe they listened in to the hearing.
A group of supporters of Gakwa gathered outside the courthouse before the hearing. Corteney Jones, one of the supporters, said she believes Hightman’s guilty and that he needs to serve time for the crimes.
Henkes declined to comment.