2 Years After Vanishing, New Investigation Into Boyfriend Of Irene Gakwa

It’s been two years since Irene Gakwa, a nursing student from Kenya, disappeared from her home in Gillette. A neighboring law enforcement agency in Wyoming has opened a new investigation into her live-in boyfriend.

Jen Kocher

February 18, 20246 min read

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GILLETTE — It’s been two years since a nursing student from Kenya disappeared from her home in Gillette, and a neighboring law enforcement agency has opened a new and unrelated investigation into her live-in boyfriend.

Irene Gakwa, now 34, vanished from the home in Gillette that she shared with Nathan Hightman in late February 2022.

Hightman, 40, is now serving a three- to six-year sentence in Wyoming state prison after pleading guilty last fall to three felonies related to financial and intellectual property crimes against her.

Among those crimes include draining Gakwa’s bank account after she disappeared and maxing out her credit card with more than 80 purchases totaling nearly $7,000, including a shovel, pair of boots and pants from Walmart for $36.19, according to court documents.

Hightman also pleaded guilty to deleting her email account after she vanished.

Police say Hightman has been uncooperative in their investigation and is considered a person of interest in her disappearance. However, to date, no charges have been leveled against him related to her whereabouts.

As of Friday, there are no new updates in Gakwa’s case, Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police, told Cowboy State Daily.

Irene Gakwa
Irene Gakwa (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

New Investigation

A new investigation opened by the Torrington Police Department in November stems from the period in which Hightman had been incarcerated at the Wyoming Medium Correctional there, where he’s been since being transferred from the Campbell County Detention Center in late June 2023.

Following the unknown incident, Hightman was moved to the maximum security Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins where he is now, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections offender locator. It’s not clear if the open investigation had anything to do with his transfer.

Per policy, WDOC does not share information about an inmate’s transfer.

“Movement of inmates and the specific reasons (beyond intake) are not releasable due to safety and security reasons,” Stephanie Kiger, records and communication lead and public information officer for WDOC, stated in an email to Cowboy State Daily.

Kiger further said that Hightman has no record of disciplinary infractions.

It’s also not clear if the Torrington investigation has anything to do with Hightman yanking his sentencing appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which happened during the same time period.

Meanwhile, Torrington police remain tight-lipped about the nature of their investigation into Hightman.

Torrington Police Chief Matt Johnson declined to comment, citing an open investigation.

“The investigation is not yet complete,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “When it is completed, the information will be submitted to the Goshen County Attorney for review and consideration of criminal charges.”

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  • Police and FBI agents searched Nathan Wightman's house after Irene Gakwa disappeared in February 2022.
    Police and FBI agents searched Nathan Wightman's house after Irene Gakwa disappeared in February 2022. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Where is Irene Gakwa 4 2 17 24

Where’s Irene?

Meanwhile, nearly two years to the day she disappeared, Gakwa’s family and friends are left with questions about what might have happened to her.

Gakwa moved from her home in Nairobi, Kenya, to Boise, Idaho, in 2019 to be closer to her two elder brothers, Kris Gakwa and Kennedy Wainaina, and their families. While in Idaho, she worked as a health aide and attended nursing school.

By all accounts, she’s a kind, soft-hearted woman who works hard.

Gakwa met Hightman after answering his personal ad on Craigslist. The two dated on and off for roughly 18 months before moving together to Wyoming in July 2021.

Nobody who knew Gakwa knows why the couple moved to Gillette, which struck her family as odd because she hates cold weather.

Hightman bought a one-story home on Pathfinder Circle in north Gillette, where he was employed as an at-home tech support worker prior to his arrest.

Neither Gakwa’s brother nor their family and friends had high regard for Hightman after meeting him for dinners and gatherings on several occasions. Wainaina said they found him controlling and distant.

“I didn’t have a good feeling about him,” Wainaina said.

At the same time, they wanted to afford their sister independence. Gakwa stopped communicating with her family in late February 2022, which was the family’s first sign that something was terribly wrong.

Typically, she spoke with her father, Francis Kamboh, in Kenya via What’s App every day. When those conversations stopped in late February, the family knew something was wrong.

Her brothers drove from Idaho to Gillette to report her officially missing March 20.

His Story

For his part, Hightman maintains his innocence, according to court documents, and denies having anything to do with her disappearance.

He contends that Gakwa left their residence late one evening in late February, court documents state.

He told police that Gakwa came from dinner and said she was leaving before getting into a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed into two black plastic trash bags. Hightman said she didn’t tell him where she was going, only that she was unhappy and was leaving Wyoming.

And though Hightman admitted to police that he stole Gakwa’s money when first interviewed, court documents state he said he did so as a means of coercing her into contacting him after she left.

In a brief text exchange with this reporter last May, Hightman said he’s innocent, and he would love to share his side of the story, but his legal counsel had advised against giving interviews.

To date, he has not been charged with any crimes related to Gakwa’s disappearance, despite a nearly eight-hour search of Hightman’s home by Gillette police and FBI on Oct. 13, 2022.

Nathan Hightman was the live-in boyfriend of a woman from Gillette missing for two years. Although he's serving time in prison for stealing her credit cards and money and remaining a suspect in her disappearance, he hasn't been charged with it.
Nathan Hightman was the live-in boyfriend of a woman from Gillette missing for two years. Although he's serving time in prison for stealing her credit cards and money and remaining a suspect in her disappearance, he hasn't been charged with it. (Campbell County Sheriff's Office)

Bounty On His Head

During his incarceration in Torrington, Hightman further shared in a written letter that he had been moved three times since arriving because there may have been “a bounty” on his head from fellow prisoners, though he couldn’t say for certain whether that was true.

His public defender, Dallas Lamb, had referenced this bounty during Hightman’s sentencing in May, which he said forced Hightman to be held in protective custody while at the Campbell County Detention Center in Gillette. Henkes blamed the bounty on heightened attention after Hightman’s story made state, national and international news.

Hightman didn’t know if rumors of a bounty were true.

In his letter, Hightman said that his “first and second cellmates knew who I was before I even said hello.”

While in Torrington, he said he was initially kept in isolation but expressed a desire to be moved to general population.

He also lamented losing everything he owns at the age of 40 as a result of his incarceration, likening it to “watching a train wreck and being tied down, unable to stop it.”

Hightman has not answered any additional correspondence since arriving in Rawlins.

More Coverage

Fiancé of Missing Kenyan Irene Gakwa Pleads Guilty to Felony, Financial Crimes

Fiancé Of Missing Gillette Woman Pleads Not Guilty To Felonies Related To Crimes Against Her

Fiancé of Missing Gillette Woman Seen Purchasing Boots and Shovel, Arrested on Multiple Felonies

Boyfriend of Missing Gillette Woman Charged with Multiple Felonies

Boyfriend Now Considered ‘Person of Interest’ In Missing Gillette Woman Case

Authorities Seek Help in Locating Missing Gillette Woman; Man Living With Woman Not Cooperative

Jen Kocher can be reached at jen@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Jen Kocher

Features, Investigative Reporter