By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
The boyfriend of a missing Gillette woman is now considered a “person of interest” in her disappearance, according to police.
Irene Gakwa was reported missing on March 20 by her brother and was last seen in a video conference with her parents on Feb. 24. The 32-year-old Kenyan native was in nursing school and had moved to Gillette last July with her boyfriend, who police say is not cooperating with the investigation.
Investigators have declined to identify the boyfriend.
The Gillette Police Department has received numerous tips and officers have executed more than 24 search warrants during the investigation, according to GPD officials, who said that digital evidence, including location data, has also provided promising leads.
One such lead indicates that Irene may have been taken to a rural area, mine site or oil or gas location in a passenger vehicle or crossover SUV between Feb. 24 and March 20.
It was his sister’s failure to check in with her family regularly that prompted Irene’s older brother Kennedy Wainaina to report her as missing, he told Cowboy State Daily on Saturday.
Wainaina, a pharmacist in Boise, said his sister would video chat with his parents in Nairobi, Kenya, on a regular basis, either daily or every other day. The family is very close, he said.
Wainaina and his younger brother Chris moved to the U.S. in their late teens to attend college, while their younger sister remained in Kenya where she went to college, worked in the tourism industry and lived with her parents.
Irene moved to the U.S. in her late 20s to be near her brothers and broaden her experiences, her older brother said.
In Idaho, Irene went to school and worked and met her boyfriend on an online dating website. The couple lived together in Idaho for about one and one-half years before moving to Gillette, which the boyfriend’s idea, Wainaina said.
“We were all shocked,” Wainaina said of his sister’s plans to move to Wyoming. “She was going to school and doing very well. We are a close family and have always kept an eye on each other.”
He described the boyfriend as “controlling” and said his sister was having a hard time acclimating to Gillette given its small size, colder weather and the fact that she missed her family.
Along with the unprecedented lack of contact with her parents, strange text messages to her family from Irene’s phone on March 3 also set off alarm bells. The texts, which her family said were not in Kenyan, announced plans of moving to Texas due to the fact that she was unhappy with her life in Gillette.
Her family also reported that Irene’s WhatsApp account was deleted on March 8, ending group conversations with her family. The last activity on her phone was on March 4, according to the timeline provided by her family.
Irene’s disappearance has been hard for both her brothers and parents, and Wainaina said they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support from the Gillette community. An unknown individual paid to post Irene’s missing person information on a digital billboard.
Likewise, the GPD detectives have done a great job keeping the family updated, which has been a blessing, Wainaina said, given their distance from Wyoming. The brothers made the 800-mile drive to Gillette following after Kennedy reported her missing, but have since returned home.
“I sit at home wondering if I’m doing all I can,” Wainaina said. “I wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning worrying and thinking of my sister.”
He described his sister as a loving person and a caring, strong person who wanted and saw the best in everybody.
“She tries to make the best of everything,” he said. “She finds the good in everybody.”
Wainaina said he and his family want to thank the community for everything they’ve done and urged anyone with any information to contact police.
“Sometimes people think ‘I saw this or I saw that and it’s not important,’ but it could be the clue that police need,” he said. “It’s worth sharing.”
Irene is described as a Black woman who is 5-feet, 1inch tall and weighing about 100 pounds.
Anyone with information is asked to contact GPD at (307) 682-5155.