Irene Gakwa: Search for missing woman in Wyoming partly revolves around 55-gallon drum

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CNN

The console of Stacy Koester’s black Audi is filled with items not found in most cars: blue latex gloves. Medicine against allergies. Bandages. small utility knives.

But it’s not a doctor who makes house calls. She is part of a team of women in Gillette, Wyoming who spend much of their time searching for clues to the case of a missing woman they have never met.

Irene Gakwa was last seen by her family during a video call on February 24 and was reported missing at the end of March. She was 32 at the time. The Kenyan immigrant lived in Gillette with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, who is considered a person of interest in her disappearance. He is separately charged with five felonies for allegedly transferring money from his bank account, changing his online banking password, maxing out his credit card and deleting his email account after he disappeared.

Wear T-shirts with the words “Where’s Irene?” and “Team Irene,” the women drove hundreds of miles in their cars, roaming the vast high plains of Campbell County in search of anything that might help solve the mystery.

Last weekend, their search included about two dozen people, 10 horses and ATVs donated by local residents to help them explore the area from a higher vantage point.

One of the main targets of their search is a 55-gallon metal drum that Gillette police believe may be linked to the case.

“We believe the barrel is a key part of the investigation,” Koester said.

In a May statement, Gillette police said they were “requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned in the county.”

Police declined to say why they were looking for details about the drummer or what role he may have played in Gakwa’s disappearance.

But Gakwa’s older brother, Kennedy Wainaina, said Gillette police told the family that a neighbor reported seeing what appeared to be a fire burning in a drum in Hightman’s backyard between late February and March.

Police told them they searched Hightman’s property but did not find the drum, Wainaina told CNN.

In a statement to CNN, Dan Stroup, the lead detective in the case, declined to share any additional details about the drumming or Wainaina’s claim.

“I am unable to comment on the barrel other than it is an item of interest that we would like to consider as part of this investigation,” he said.

Women helping to search for Irene Gakwa display signs asking for information June 18 in Gillette, Wyoming.

CNN left text and email messages for two of Hightman’s neighbors, but did not receive a response. CNN has also reached out to Hightman for comment, but has not heard back.

Koester and others now scour the area for the drum, though their search is complicated by the fact that northeast Wyoming is full of oil and natural gas fields and, by default, barrels of oil. Many of them are on private property which cannot be accessed without permission from the owners.

Investigators said they were following a variety of leads in Gakwa’s disappearance, including a cryptic one “indicating that Irene may have been taken to a rural area, mining site or oil and gas site…in a passenger vehicle or a crossover SUV,” according to a statement released in April.

Gillette police say they are seeking information about a gray or silver Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates that may have entered private property, possibly in a rural area, between Feb. 24 and March 20th.

The car is registered to Hightman, Stroup told CNN. He declined to provide further details.

“This is still a very active investigation,” Stroup said. “Rest assured that our team is working diligently to resolve this case.”

Koester and her research co-organizer, Heidi Kennedy, are on a mission to find out what happened to Gakwa.

Born and raised in Kenya, Gakwa moved to Idaho in May 2019, hoping to launch a career in healthcare. A petite woman, she was just over 5 feet tall and weighed around 90 pounds.

She moved to Gillette in the summer of 2021, but local volunteers involved in the search did not know her. “She is a member of our community,” Kennedy said. “We have to keep looking.”

Gakwa’s two brothers live in a suburb of Boise, Idaho, while his parents are in Kenya. So Koester and Kennedy assumed the leadership of grassroots, grassroots efforts to find answers.

Chris Gakwa and his wife, Gyoice Abatey, attend a vigil for his missing sister, Irene Gakwa, at a park in Gillette, Wyoming.

Their efforts have become a lifeline for a family trying to keep hope alive, but fearing the worst.

“These women, I have no words for how they helped our family,” Wainaina said. “They have become our family at Gillette, they are our feet on the ground. They kept us up to date with everything that was going on with the searches. We tried to give them money to pay for some of the research expenses, but they said no.

Koester and Kennedy galvanized a group of mostly local women for Saturday searches in the Gillette area several times a month. Sometimes a dozen people show up. On other days, about two dozen. Wainaina and other members of the greater Boise Kenyan community sometimes drive 12 hours to reach them.

In recent weeks, researchers have been rummaging through trash bags, looking through trash cans, walking through drainage tunnels and inspecting dead animal bones to make sure they aren’t human.

“Sometimes I worry that the only thing we forget is what will have answers,” Koester said.

They have sworn to turn over anything suspicious to the Gillette Police Department.

Hightman, 39, has pleaded not guilty to the financial charges and is due to stand trial in December.

He is considered a person of interest in her disappearance and has “not made himself available to detectives seeking to resolve issues that exist in the investigation,” Gillette police said in a statement.

“We believe he has information regarding Irene’s disappearance, but he has chosen not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Stroup said.

Hightman told investigators he last saw Gakwa in late February, when she came home one evening, packed her clothes in two plastic bags and left them in a dark-colored SUV, according to the report. Probable Cause Affidavit. He told police he hadn’t heard from her since.

CNN made several attempts to reach Hightman by phone, text and email, but he did not respond.

Koester and other neighbors gathered outside Hightman’s house, holding signs and chanting, “Nate, where’s Irene?”

Nathan Hightman is charged with financial crimes against Irene Gakwa.  Prior to her disappearance, the couple lived together in Gillette, Wyoming.

Koester also launched a TikTok account dedicated to researching Gakwa and began posting videos in June, urging local residents to join the search.

Last week, Hightman filed a stalking protection order against Koester, accusing him of threatening him, sharing his personal information in the videos and harassing him with unsolicited text messages and phone calls.

In his motion, filed in Campbell County Circuit Court, he said Koester drove past his house shouting his name and posted his schedule online to incite people against him.

Koester denied the allegations, saying Hightman was trying to silence her. She said she sent him several text messages in July, imploring him to help them find Gakwa.

“I don’t care about your criminal charges…” Koester wrote in a text she shared with CNN. “However, Irene is a different story…she just misses. Please tell me where to look.

Hightman did not respond to messages, Koester said.

A judge denied Hightman’s motion on Thursday, said Joseph Bolton, clerk of the Campbell County Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, Kennedy and Koester say they will continue to rally the group of mostly women from the Gillette area to continue the research.

As mothers of girls themselves, they promised Gakwa’s family that they would continue to search until she was found or there was a resolution in her case.

“We just want her to be found. We want to end his family, however long it takes — hopefully it won’t take long,” Kennedy said. “It could be one of us, our mothers, our children. We have to try to find her or get some answers.

Lacey Ayers talks to Stacy Koester, left, and Melissa Bloxom as they place signs with an image of Irene Gakwa in a yard in Gillette, Wyoming.

Kennedy and Koester launched a group message with Gakwa’s family in Idaho and Kenya to update them on developments. After months of research, there’s not much new to report. But they say they’re not giving up yet.

Some days, while running errands, women will take a detour down a country road instead of a busy street, trying to cram in a quick search. Their early searches were bumpy and “chaotic,” Koester said, but they’ve since learned to be more organized and focused. Their next search will be on September 24.

Koester gives the researchers a bag that contains medicine in case they come into contact with insects or plants to which they are allergic – and knives to cut out any tangled objects. She keeps bandages handy for unexpected bruises in rough terrain.

The organizers do not reveal the search locations in advance to avoid any preventive movement of evidence. They use an app to keep track of their searches so they don’t browse the same area twice.

“I’m not a criminal, but I try to think like one,” Koester said. “If I wanted to hide something, where would I put it? »

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