Irene Gakwa moved to the US to attend nursing school in Wyoming. Then she vanished
When her face appeared on the cellphone display, her dad teased her that she regarded hungry and drained. Her smile was extra subdued, he famous. Her brief hair, normally braided, was rumpled.
“Ensure you drink sizzling milk and loosen up,” her dad stated from his lounge within the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
That was February 24, the final time anybody in her household noticed her.
A month later — lower than three years after Gakwa left Kenya for america — her household reported her lacking. On the time of the February video name, Gakwa’s mother and father weren’t conscious she was dwelling in Gillette, Wyoming, with a person she’d met on a Craigslist discussion board.
Additionally they had no manner of realizing that police would later accuse the person of eradicating cash from her checking account, maxing out her bank card and deleting her electronic mail account. They usually by no means imagined that six months would go by with no phrase from her.
“She’s at all times been a daddy’s lady,” stated her father, Francis Kambo, in a latest cellphone interview from Nairobi. He took a deep breath as he recalled that final video name along with his solely daughter and youngest of his three kids.
“She was supposed to return house for Christmas this yr. I used to be going to purchase that ticket myself for her to return if she could not afford it,” he added, his voice shaking.
“Now I do not know if I will ever see her once more.”
Her anxious relations span two continents
Gakwa’s anxious household spans two continents 9,000 miles aside.
Her mother and father reside in Nairobi whereas her two older brothers, Chris Munga and Kennedy Wainaina, reside within the Idaho metropolis of Meridian — a Boise suburb.
Her father began worrying in late February when she didn’t reply to repeated video calls. This was uncommon for the 32-year-old, who spoke to her mother and father about each different day.
And her written messages sounded odd, her household stated. As an alternative of the combo of Swahili and Kenyan slang she makes use of, the messages have been in stilted English — like somebody was utilizing Google Translate to ship them, stated Wainaina, her oldest brother.
“The texts can be misplaced,” her father stated.
In early March — between the final video name and the day she was reported lacking — her mother and father obtained some brief WhatsApp messages from her account. Some made excuses for why she wasn’t doing video calls.
“Dad, I dropped my cellphone within the water and now the microphone would not work,” one message stated.
One other stated, “I simply need you to know I like and miss you and mother.”
“We miss you … we wish to see you, not simply chat on WhatsApp,” her father responded. “We love you at all times. You’ll … be my daughter without end.”
Her boyfriend instructed police she packed her baggage and left
The final WhatsApp message got here on March 9, her father stated.
The three siblings share a cellphone household plan. After Gakwa’s brothers couldn’t attain her, they regarded via her cellphone data and referred to as a detailed pal she’d talked to quite a few instances.
That is how they discovered she had been dwelling together with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, 39, in a modest three-bedroom home in Gillette. The couple had dated since 2020, however had damaged up a number of instances, Wainaina stated. Her brothers thought they’d parted methods and weren’t conscious they’d rekindled their romance and moved in collectively.
Her brothers reported her lacking to the Gillette Police Division on March 20, and an officer talked to Hightman the identical day, in accordance with an affidavit of possible trigger in a associated separate legal case towards her boyfriend.
Hightman instructed the officer he final noticed Gakwa in late February, when she got here house one night time, packed her clothes in two plastic baggage and left in a dark-colored SUV, the affidavit stated. He instructed police he hadn’t heard from her since. He additionally stated he withdrew cash from her checking account so she can be compelled to contact him if she wanted cash, the affidavit stated.
Hightman didn’t reply to the brothers’ request at hand over her stuff of their house, Wainaina stated. They implored him to offer them her paperwork, together with her Kenyan passport, however Hightman declined, Wainaina added.
Hightman is taken into account an individual of curiosity in her disappearance and has “not made himself out there to detectives trying to resolve questions that exist within the investigation,” Gillette police stated in an announcement.
“We consider he has info pertaining to the disappearance of Irene, however he has elected to not present that info to regulation enforcement presently,” Gillette police detective Dan Stroup instructed CNN.
CNN has made repeated makes an attempt to succeed in Hightman by way of cellphone, textual content and electronic mail, however he has not responded. CNN additionally left messages for his public defender, Dallas Lamb, however didn’t hear again.
Hightman has not been charged in Gakwa’s disappearance, however is a suspect in monetary crimes towards her after she went lacking. Gillette police arrested him in Could and charged him with two felony counts of theft, one felony depend of illegal use of a bank card, and two felony counts of crimes towards mental property for allegedly altering her banking account password and deleting her electronic mail account after she vanished.
Between February and March, Hightman transferred almost $3,700 from Gakwa’s checking account to his personal and spent an extra $3,230 on her bank card, courtroom paperwork allege.
He additionally modified her banking passwords and deleted her Gmail account, courtroom paperwork stated. All of the adjustments have been constructed from an IP handle related to Hightman after the date he instructed police Gakwa had moved out, in accordance with the possible trigger affidavit.
“This could point out it was Nathan Hightman accessing Irene’s account, eradicating cash and altering the password to disclaim entry to Irene,” the affidavit stated. “These transactions started on February 25, 2022, and continued via March 2022.”
Hightman has pleaded not responsible to all costs and was launched on a $10,000 bond. His pretrial convention is scheduled for November.
Her adopted group is pushing for solutions
In the meantime, Gakwa’s two brothers and her sister-in-law have been commuting to Gillette from Meridian a number of weekends a month to arrange search events. Most days, they don’t know the place to start.
Some residents of Gillette, a metropolis of 32,000 in northeastern Wyoming, have rallied to search out her. Sporting T-shirts that learn, “The place’s Irene?” they’ve hosted weekend search events and canvassed neighborhoods looking for permission to place up lacking individual indicators. It is commonplace to see photographs of Gakwa posted within the neighborhood the place she lived together with her boyfriend.
“No household ought to ever must go to mattress at night time questioning the place their cherished one is,” stated Stacy Koester, who lives in Gillette and has been organizing searches with a bunch of native girls since April.
They’ve mapped out areas to look and marked off the place they’ve already regarded so they do not go over the identical place twice, Koester stated.
“We promised her father and her brothers that we’ll by no means cease looking till we convey her house or they’ve solutions,” she added. “That is our objective. We’re their household right here in Gillette.”
Koester and different neighbors even have gathered exterior Hightman’s house, holding indicators and chanting, “Nate, the place’s Irene?”
Generally, her father watches the demonstrations by way of video from Kenya.
However with each passing day, hope fades a little bit.
Her mother and father had combined emotions about her transfer to the US
Born and raised in Kenya, Gakwa emigrated to america in Could 2019, hoping to launch a profession in well being care. A petite lady, she stood simply over 5 toes tall and weighed about 90 kilos.
At first, her mother and father resisted their introverted daughter’s plans to maneuver to a faraway nation. They anxious about how she’d alter — she was so shy, she barely left her room of their suburban Nairobi house to go exterior, her father stated.
“We generally needed to remind her to get out of the home and get some daylight,” her father stated. “However we determined since her brothers are there, why not?”
Gakwa settled first in Idaho to be close to her brothers, with desires of attending nursing college and dealing in a hospital. She lived with the youthful of her brothers, Chris Munga, and his spouse, Gyoice Abatey, in Meridian.
There, she developed a detailed bond together with her sister-in-law. Each girls took a ladies’ journey to Los Angeles in 2020, and in between buying, consuming out and visits to the seaside, Gakwa confided to Abatey that she was courting Hightman. Gakwa spent quite a lot of time with him on the cellphone, Abatey stated, however didn’t share many particulars about their relationship.
Abatey described her sister-in-law as a candy, fun-loving one that began her mornings with a cup of tea and loved cooking, buying and watching Nigerian films.
“She’s such a free spirit, so caring, goofy, she simply goes with the stream,” Abatey stated.
Gakwa and Hightman finally moved in collectively in Meridian, and he or she began nursing college at School of Western Idaho. In the summertime of 2021, they relocated to Gillette, the place she transferred to Gillette Neighborhood School.
At instances, her father would ask Gakwa if she needed to return to Kenya.
“She’d inform me, ‘Dad, I am good. I’ve my very own life now,'” Kambo stated.
Within the months earlier than she vanished, Gakwa returned to Meridian a number of instances to go to her household.
Final Thanksgiving, they gathered on the home of Munga, her brother. There, she and her siblings made their favourite African delicacies, together with goat barbecue, jollof rice and ugali, a type of corn meal common in Kenya.
Gakwa cooked a aspect of cabbage with a number of tomatoes — similar to their mom used to make whereas they have been rising up. She taught Abatey make it for her brother.
They ate and talked late into the night time.
That was the final time her siblings noticed her in individual.
Her boyfriend allegedly purchased boots and a shovel utilizing her financial institution card
The Gillette Police Division stated it has executed roughly 24 search warrants within the case, together with at Hightman’s house and at a number of banks to trace exercise on Gakwa’s accounts.
Throughout one of many searches, investigators recovered a shovel and boots Hightman purchased at a Walmart in late February utilizing Gakwa’s Visa card, in accordance with courtroom paperwork.
In April, Gillette police issued an announcement naming Hightman “an individual of curiosity” within the case and saying, “he has not made himself out there to detectives trying to resolve questions that exist within the investigation.”
The police added, “Irene went lacking beneath suspicious circumstances. … digital proof, together with location information, can also be being analyzed and has offered optimistic leads.”
Stroup, the detective, stated the investigation is ongoing.
“Within the occasion possible trigger is established, acceptable motion can be taken,” he stated.
Her household is struggling between hope and grief
Gakwa’s household remains to be holding out hope that in some way she’ll contact them or come again house. The choice is simply too laborious to bear.
Abatey needs she’d held Gakwa a little bit tighter the final time they hugged. Her kids ask time and again the place their aunt is.
Gakwa’s thirty third birthday was in July, and her nephews thought in the event that they threw a celebration, possibly she’d present up. As an alternative, they held a Zoom vigil. Her family and friends shed tears and shared recollections and photographs of her, struggling between utilizing previous or current tense.
“Whether or not we meet on this life or the subsequent, know that you simply’re completely cherished,” one pal stated. On the finish, they performed a video of a beaming Gakwa dancing and singing alongside to “Drogba (Joanna),” a music by UK artist Afro B.
“My kids do not perceive why auntie isn’t calling them, how she simply disappeared,” Abatey stated. “Generally I simply think about her strolling via the door, and saying, ‘Why are you searching for a grown lady like me?’ As the times go by and nothing occurs, we do not know what to do.”
Hundreds of miles away, Gakwa’s mother and father pray for her each night time. Her mom is simply too distraught to speak to reporters, however Kambo, her father, stated sharing recollections of his daughter helps him cope.
He chuckles when he remembers their shut relationship.
“She was my solely daughter. I spoiled her and he or she took benefit of that,” he stated. “She had not launched Nathan to me — that is what kills me.”
Some days, he is optimistic she’ll make it house for Christmas. However most days, not a lot.
“I simply wish to know the reality. I am nonetheless hopeful, however my hope is dwindling. She is aware of my quantity,” he added.
“The truth that she has not referred to as …”
His voice trailed off.
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