Family of woman missing from Gillette visits state capitol, still seeks answers

Jake Goodrick with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — To mark the full year since Kennedy Wainaina's sister was last heard from, he took a long trip from Boise, Idaho, to Cheyenne.


The destination was the Wyoming State Capitol, but more specifically, the Governor’s Office.


On Friday, Feb. 24, Wainaina and his cousin Tarisai Githu delivered a petition and handwritten letter to the office of Gov. Mark Gordon. They were asking for help on a day that marked exactly one year since Irene Gakwa was last heard from on a video call with her family.


The investigation into her disappearance began March 20 when she was reported missing to the Gillette Police Department. With few recent updates on the status of the case, the trip to Cheyenne served as another attempt to stir action in the otherwise quiet investigation.


“We’ve got to do everything we can to get some answers,” Wainaina said.


Although they didn’t have the chance to meet face to face with Gordon, Wainaina said he had face time with a few Gillette lawmakers, including Sen. Eric Barlow and Rep. Abby Angelos.


The “Justice for Irene Gakwa” online petition delivered to Gordon’s office has collected more than 30,000 signatures since launching in September.


“These signatures are a testament that the public would like a speedy conclusion to this case and Irene Gakwa’s whereabouts made public and known," Wainaina said in a press release. “Additionally, the petition calls for justice for all those responsible for her disappearance.”


Stacy Koester and a team of locals who have led efforts in Gillette to search for Gakwa and keep awareness of her investigation went to City Hall to deliver a similar message that day.


“We just thought it’s time we did something else and that’s why we tried to take this step and see if there’s anything we can do or if there’s anybody who can talk to us,” Wainaina said.


Gillette police continue to investigate Gakwa’s missing person case, and her fiancé, Nathan J. Hightman, remains a person of interest who has not faced charges directly related to her disappearance.


Hightman was arrested and charged in May with five felonies alleging he illegally accessed and stole from Gakwa’s bank account, ran up two of her credit cards and changed her Gmail account password.


He pleaded not guilty in June to two counts of theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property and unlawful use of a credit card, according to court documents.


A 10-day trial for those charges is scheduled to begin April 3.


He’s alleged to have taken $3,666.46 from Gakwa’s checking account over multiple transfers, charged a visa card for $604.65 and then maxed out a Capital One card for $3,230.65. All bank transfers and credit card uses were made after Gakwa was reportedly last seen in February, and she was the only one authorized to use the bank account, according to court documents.


Police and FBI personnel were seen Oct. 13 outside of Hightman’s home on Pathfinder Circle in Gillette where they executed newly granted search warrants after further evidence gave additional cause to search the home, according to police.


“Even though we ask the police department, they just tell us there’s no updates from the FBI,” he said. “It gets frustrating not knowing.”


Wainaina knows the answers they seek may result in bad news, but at this point, he said any news is better than the feeling of not knowing.


“All we want is to get some light and also to get more people in Gillette to know about it,” Wainaina said. “For me, up to today, I still believe maybe somebody saw something. Maybe they didn’t put two and two together. The more people that know about this, the better it is for our family.”


This story was published on Mar. 2, 2023.


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