Friday, March 24, 2023

She moved to the US with big dreams and met a boyfriend on Craigslist. Then she vanished

When her face appeared on the telephone display screen, her dad teased her that she regarded hungry and drained. Her smile was extra subdued, he famous. Her brief hair, normally braided, was rumpled.

“Make sure you drink hot milk and relax,” her dad mentioned from his front room 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 the United States — her household reported her lacking. At 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.

They additionally had no method of figuring out that police would later accuse the person of eradicating cash from her checking account, maxing out her bank card and deleting her e-mail account. And they by no means imagined that six months would go by with out a phrase from her.

“She’s always been a daddy’s girl,” mentioned her father, Francis Kambo, in a latest telephone 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 come home for Christmas this year. I was going to buy that ticket myself for her to come if she couldn’t afford it,” he added, his voice shaking.

“Now I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.”

Her apprehensive relations span two continents

Gakwa’s apprehensive household spans two continents 9,000 miles aside.

Her mother and father dwell in Nairobi whereas her two older brothers, Chris Munga and Kennedy Wainaina, dwell 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.

Chris Munga and his wife, Gyoice Abatey, attend a vigil for his missing sister  in Gillette, Wyoming. The couple makes the 12-hour drive from their home in Meridian, Idaho, to take part in local searches.

And her written messages sounded odd, her household mentioned. Instead of the combination of Swahili and Kenyan slang she makes use of, the messages had been in stilted English — like somebody was utilizing Google Translate to ship them, mentioned Wainaina, her oldest brother.

“The texts would be out of place,” her father mentioned.

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 phone in the water and now the microphone doesn’t work,” one message mentioned.

Another mentioned, “I just want you to know I love and miss you and mom.”

“We miss you … we want to see you, not just chat on WhatsApp,” her father responded. “We love you always. You will … be my daughter forever.”

Her boyfriend informed police she packed her baggage and left

The final WhatsApp message got here on March 9, her father mentioned.

The three siblings share a cellular phone household plan. After Gakwa’s brothers couldn’t attain her, they regarded by her telephone data and referred to as an in depth pal she’d talked to quite a few instances.

That’s how they discovered she had been dwelling along 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 mentioned. Her brothers thought they’d parted methods and weren’t conscious they’d rekindled their romance and moved in collectively.

Nathan Hightman is accused of financial crimes against Irene Gakwa. Before her disappearance, the couple lived together in Gillette, Wyoming.

Her brothers reported her lacking to the Gillette Police Department on March 20, and an officer talked to Hightman the identical day, in line with an affidavit of possible trigger in a associated separate felony case in opposition to her boyfriend.

Hightman informed the officer he final noticed Gakwa in late February, when she got here house one evening, packed her clothes in two plastic baggage and left in a dark-colored SUV, the affidavit mentioned. He informed police he hadn’t heard from her since. He additionally mentioned he withdrew cash from her checking account so she could be pressured to contact him if she wanted cash, the affidavit mentioned.

Hightman didn’t reply to the brothers’ request at hand over her stuff of their house, Wainaina mentioned. They implored him to provide 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 available to detectives looking to resolve questions that exist in the investigation,” Gillette police mentioned in a press release.

“We believe he has information pertaining to the disappearance of Irene, but he has elected not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Gillette police detective Dan Stroup informed CNN.

CNN has made repeated makes an attempt to achieve Hightman through telephone, textual content and e-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 in opposition to her after she went lacking. Gillette police arrested him in May 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 in opposition to mental property for allegedly altering her banking account password and deleting her e-mail account after she vanished.

Between February and March, Hightman transferred practically $3,700 from Gakwa’s checking account to his personal and spent a further $3,230 on her bank card, courtroom paperwork allege.

A group formed to help find Irene Gakwa prepares to post signs seeking information about the missing woman  in Gillette, Wyoming, on June 18.

He additionally modified her banking passwords and deleted her Gmail account, courtroom paperwork mentioned. All the modifications had been constituted of an IP handle related to Hightman after the date he informed police Gakwa had moved out, in line with the possible trigger affidavit.

“This would indicate it was Nathan Hightman accessing Irene’s account, removing money and changing the password to deny access to Irene,” the affidavit mentioned. “These transactions began on February 25, 2022, and continued through 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

Meanwhile, Gakwa’s two brothers and her sister-in-law have been commuting to Gillette from Meridian a number of weekends a month to prepare search events. Most days, they do not know the place to start.

They’ve visited morgues and hospitals. They’ve checked shelters for unhoused individuals. They’ve launched an internet site, They’ve requested native authorities to examine whether or not she joined the US army — an thought she briefly entertained.

Some residents of Gillette, a metropolis of 32,000 in northeastern Wyoming, have rallied to seek out her. Wearing T-shirts that learn, “Where’s Irene?” they’ve hosted weekend search events and canvassed neighborhoods in search of permission to place up lacking individual indicators. It’s commonplace to see photographs of Gakwa posted within the neighborhood the place she lived along with her boyfriend.

“No family should ever have to go to bed at night wondering where their loved one is,” mentioned Stacy Koester, who lives in Gillette and has been organizing searches with a gaggle of native ladies since April.

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. Gakwa lived with her boyfriend next door.

They’ve mapped out areas to go looking and marked off the place they’ve already regarded so they do not go over the identical place twice, Koester mentioned.

“We promised her father and her brothers that we will never stop searching until we bring her home or they have answers,” she added. “That’s our goal. We are their family here in Gillette.”

Koester and different neighbors even have gathered exterior Hightman’s house, holding indicators and chanting, “Nate, where’s Irene?”

Sometimes, her father watches the demonstrations through video from Kenya.

But with each passing day, hope fades slightly.

Her mother and father had blended emotions about her transfer to the US

Born and raised in Kenya, Gakwa emigrated to the United States in May 2019, hoping to launch a profession in well being care. A petite lady, she stood simply over 5 ft 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 apprehensive about how she’d alter — she was so shy, she barely left her room of their suburban Nairobi house to go exterior, her father mentioned.

“We sometimes had to remind her to get out of the house and get some sunlight,” her father mentioned. “But we decided since her brothers are there, why not?”

Gakwa settled first in Idaho to be close to her brothers, with goals 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 an in depth bond along with her sister-in-law. Both ladies took a women’ journey to Los Angeles in 2020, and in between procuring, consuming out and visits to the seaside, Gakwa confided to Abatey that she was relationship Hightman. Gakwa spent quite a lot of time with him on the telephone, Abatey mentioned, however didn’t share many particulars about their relationship.

Abatey described her sister-in-law as a candy, fun-loving one who began her mornings with a cup of tea and loved cooking, procuring and watching Nigerian motion pictures.

“She’s such a free spirit, so caring, goofy, she just goes with the flow,” Abatey mentioned.

Gakwa and Hightman ultimately moved in collectively in Meridian, and he or she began nursing college at College of Western Idaho. In the summer time of 2021, they relocated to Gillette, the place she transferred to Gillette Community College.

At instances, her father would ask Gakwa if she needed to return to Kenya.

“She’d tell me, ‘Dad, I’m good. I have my own life now,'” Kambo mentioned.

In the months earlier than she vanished, Gakwa returned to Meridian a number of instances to go to her household.

Last 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 well-liked in Kenya.

Gakwa cooked a facet of cabbage with a number of tomatoes — identical to their mom used to make whereas they had been rising up. She taught Abatey the way to make it for her brother.

They ate and talked late into the evening.

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 Department mentioned 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.

During one of many searches, investigators recovered a shovel and boots Hightman purchased at a Walmart in late February utilizing Gakwa’s Visa card, in line with courtroom paperwork.

In April, Gillette police issued a press release naming Hightman “a person of interest” within the case and saying, “he has not made himself available to detectives looking to resolve questions that exist in the investigation.”

The police added, “Irene went missing under suspicious circumstances. … digital evidence, including location data, is also being analyzed and has provided positive leads.”

Stroup, the detective, mentioned the investigation is ongoing.

“In the event probable cause is established, appropriate action will be taken,” he mentioned.

Her household is struggling between hope and grief

Gakwa’s household continues to be holding out hope that one way or the other she’ll contact them or come again house. The different is just too exhausting to bear.

Abatey needs she’d held Gakwa slightly 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, perhaps she’d present up. Instead, 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 we meet in this life or the next, know that you’re absolutely loved,” one pal mentioned. At the tip, they performed a video of a beaming Gakwa dancing and singing alongside to “Drogba (Joanna),” a track by UK artist Afro B.

A young Irene Gakwa is shown with her father, Francis Kambo, in Nairobi, Kenya. "She's always been a daddy's girl," her father said.

“My children don’t understand why auntie is not calling them, how she just disappeared,” Abatey mentioned. “Sometimes I just imagine her walking through the door, and saying, ‘Why are you looking for a grown woman like me?’ As the days go by and nothing happens, we don’t know what to do.”

Thousands of miles away, Gakwa’s mother and father pray for her each evening. Her mom is just too distraught to speak to reporters, however Kambo, her father, mentioned sharing recollections of his daughter helps him cope.

He chuckles when he remembers their shut relationship.

“She was my only daughter. I spoiled her and she took advantage of that,” he mentioned. “She had not introduced Nathan to me — that’s what kills me.”

Some days, he is optimistic she’ll make it house for Christmas. But most days, not a lot.

“I just want to know the truth. I’m still hopeful, but my hope is dwindling. She knows my number,” he added.

“The fact that she has not called …”

His voice trailed off.

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