Irene Wairimu Gakwa

Gakwa, circa 2022; Nathan Hightman; Subaru Crosstrek

  • Missing Since 02/24/2022
  • Missing From Gillette, Wyoming
  • Classification Endangered Missing
  • Sex Female
  • Race Black
  • Age 32 years old
  • Height and Weight 5'1, 89 pounds
  • Associated Vehicle(s) Silver or gray Subaru Crosstrek
  • Distinguishing Characteristics African-American female. Black hair, brown eyes. Gakwa was born in Kenya and moved to the United States in 2019. Her ears are pierced.

Details of Disappearance

Gakwa's family in Kenya last saw her on a video call over WhatsApp in Gillette, Wyoming on February 24, 2022. At the time of her disappearance, she was living with her fiance and attending Gillette Community College, studying nursing.

Starting a few days after her last video call to Kenya, text messages were sent from Gakwa's phone to her loved ones' phones. The messages were in English, which is unusual for Gakwa; she usually texted her siblings in a mix of the Swahili language and Kenyan slang. The messages apologized for not doing more video calls, stating Gakwa had dropped her phone in the water and its microphone on it had stopped working. On March 9, Gakwa's father got a text from her phone promising that she would send him her new phone number, but she never did.

Her fiance, Nathan J. Hightman, says he the last person to see her before she disappeared; he stated Gakwa came home on March 4, packed some belongings in two plastic bags, and left again in a dark-colored SUV. She has never been heard from again.

Gakwa's WhatsApp account was deleted on March 8. Her cellular phone was deactivated on March 10. She was reported missing on March 20.

A photo of Hightman is posted with this case summary. He has refused to cooperate with the investigation into Gakwa's disappearance and is considered a person of interest in her case. After her disappearance he was charged with several criminal offenses against her. He had transferred $3,700 from Gakwa's bank account into his own, charged $3,230 in purchases to Gakwa's credit cards, changed her banking password, and deleted her Gmail account, all without her permission and after her disappearance. He said the reason he drained her bank account was to "force her to contact him in the event that she needed money."

In March 2023, Hightman pleaded guilty to felony theft, a felony against intellectual property and felony unlawful use of credit cards. He was sentenced to three to six years in prison. He has not been charged in connection with Gakwa's disappearance.

The couple, who met online in 2020, had had a troubled relationship and had broken up several times. At one point, when the pair were living in Meridian, Idaho, Hightman went to the police and accused Gakwa of using his credit card without his permission to purchase a $9,176 plane ticket to Kenya. (He later declined to press charges against her. Gakwa's best friend since high school doesn't believe Gakwa would have used anyone else's credit card to buy the ticket, and also said Gakwa could have gotten a plane ticket to Kenya much cheaper from another vendor if she wanted to buy one.)

Gakwa's family was unaware she was still seeing Hightman at the time of her disappearance; they thought she had broken up with him for good. They also were unaware she was living in Wyoming; she had told them she was in San Antonio, Texas.

Authorities believe Gakwa's body may have been taken to a rural area, mine site or oil site sometime between February 24 and March 20. A silver or gray Subaru Crosstrek registered to Hightman is a vehicle of interest in her case; a photo of a similar vehicle is posted with this case summary. Authorities are also seeking information about a 55-gallon burn barrel. Hightman bought such a barrel on February 24 and neighbors saw him burning something in his backyard the next day.

It's uncharacteristic of Gakwa to be out of touch with her family; she spoke to her parents in Kenya every couple of days, and also maintained contact with two brothers in Idaho. She had told her parents she was happy with her new life in the United States and didn't want to return to Kenya to live, although she did plan to go back for a visit.

Gakwa attended the Karoti Girls High School, a prestigious girls' boarding school in Kenya, before moving to the United States. She's described as a private, shy and introverted person. Her case remains unsolved.

Updated 1 time since October 12, 2004. Last updated September 21, 2023; casefile added.