(NEW YORK) – Family members of Irene Gakwa, a 32-year-old black woman who disappeared in Wyoming, are still seeking answers to what happened to her more than 7 months after a search began.
“It’s getting harder and harder every day,” Chris Gakwa, his older brother, said in an interview with ABC News.
Prior to her disappearance, Kenyan-born Irene Gakwa spoke daily to her mother and father who reside in Kenya via Whatsapp, but those conversations ended on February 24 – the last time her family say they heard from her. . His brothers filed a missing person’s report on March 20 after going unaccounted for for nearly a month.
Irene Gakwa moved from Kenya to the United States in 2019 hoping to attend nursing school, according to her family. She had attended the College of Western Idaho and “died well,” according to her brother.
“When she moved here, it was a little different. It took her a little bit of getting used to everything,” Kennedy Wainaina, her older brother, told ABC News. see go wild and befriend people.”
Wainaina and Chris Gakwa, who both reside in Idaho, say they would see their sister almost every weekend until she met her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman.
“We are a very close family,” Chris Gakwa told ABC News. “She was coming to hang out with us…she had friends and was hanging out, but things didn’t go well when she met Nate…That’s when things started to go downhill and I I feel like Nate was the one who kind of pushed her away from the family.”
His brothers say they only met Hightman a few times after Irene Gakwa met him on Craigslist – adding they don’t know how long the pair have been dating. Irene moved more than 700 miles from Boise, Idaho, to Gillette, Wyoming, with Hightman without the knowledge of her family, her brothers say.
“From the first day I met him, I didn’t like him telling you the truth, but I never told him,” Chris Gakwa told ABC News. “I just knew he was a problem.”
He says the couple had a difficult relationship and Irene Gakwa used to call Chris’ wife when they had problems.
At one point, authorities in Gillette, Wyoming investigated Hightman’s allegations that Irene Gakwa “stole money” to buy plane tickets to Kenya, according to the Kenya Police Department. Gillette. But police found no basis for the allegations and dropped charges against her, they said.
In April, nearly a month after Irene Gakwa disappeared, Hightman became “a person of interest,” according to a press release from the Gillette, Wyoming, police department. The press release said Hightman had been charged with a handful of crimes — including two counts of theft, one count of unlawful use of a credit card and two counts of crimes against intellectual property. Irene Gakwa was listed as a victim of these crimes. The press release also stated, “Irene disappeared under suspicious circumstances.”
Hightman was arrested on those charges but later released on $10,000 bond, Gillette Deputy Chief of Police Brent Wasson said in the press release. Hightman pleaded not guilty to the charges, Wasson said.
Hightman did not immediately respond to an ABC News request for comment. Current information about Hightman’s attorney was not immediately available.
His former attorney Steven Titus told the Gillette News Record in May that “he hadn’t had time to speak extensively with Hightman” about the five felony charges and that his client has always said he had nothing to do. to do with the disappearance of Irene Gakwa. Titus also told the newspaper that police did not have enough probable cause to charge Hightman with her disappearance, resulting in the five non-violent charges instead.
Irene Gakwa’s brothers and Stacy Koester, a Gillette volunteer who is leading a search party to find the woman, say they weren’t notified by police as often as they should have been.
“Every time we contact them, they give us the same answers,” Koester, who has never met Irene Gakwa and regularly updates her brothers on the research, told ABC News. “They keep saying there are no updates to provide and they will continue to work on the case…it’s like we’re going in circles.”
The Gillette Police Department did not comment on the family’s claims regarding their response, but Wasson provided ABC News with a press release regarding an Oct. 13 search of Hightman’s residence.
“Analysis of the evidence led to the development of an additional cause to return to the residence Irene shared with Nathan Hightman. Detectives requested and obtained additional search warrants to advance the investigation,” reads the press release.
No further updates on the search were provided by Wasson and no arrests have been made since then.
“I’ve had several deaths in my family…my mother and my two sisters, so I know how it feels to have a family member go missing,” Koester said of her research interest.
Koester says she contacted and tried to schedule meetings with Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, without success. Despite her unsuccessful efforts, Koester says she leads a search party of 15 to 20 people for Irene each week. They are looking for any evidence that could help find her – including a 55-gallon metal drum that police say was burned in Hightman’s backyard when she was reported missing and they have asked for the public’s help in locating her.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.
Dusty Martin, owner of car dealership Gillette Auto Scene, said Hightman and Irene Gakwa sold his silver Acura in January just before it went missing.
“The whole encounter was very strange,” Martin told ABC News in an interview. “Nathan was a weird character and I thought it was weird because Irene had to sort everything out with him. Every move she made, she had to watch him,” Martin said.
The couple sold the car to Martin for $2,000, he says. Hightman was “very persistent” in selling the car despite it being registered and titled in his name, according to Martin. Irene Gakwa said they were going to swap her car for a new one, so Martin says he insisted on showing a few cars he had in his lot, but Hightman told Martin they had already found one.
As the search for Irene Gakwa continues, Koester says she has tried to bring attention to the case via social media, creating a TikTok dedicated to bringing the missing woman home. The account garnered over 62,000 likes.
“I just feel like if Irene was white with blonde hair and blue eyes, the police would be holding a press conference every week,” Koester, who is white, told ABC News. She noted law enforcement’s response to the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman who went missing last year and was later found dead. “I personally think that [Irene’s] the case did not receive the attention it deserved.
Despite the lack of media coverage that Irene Gakwa’s family and supporters say the case has received, they won’t be giving up the search anytime soon. The family have created a website detailing what they say is a timeline that led to his disappearance.
“I wish I could do more, but we’re trying to do our best,” Wainaina said.
“I’ve never met her, but I want to help find her and help her family in any way I can,” Koester said.
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