A Kenyan man who moved to the United States to pursue a romantic dream has not been seen since February. This disappearance raised suspicions in his family more than 14,400 kilometers away.
Irene Gakwa met Nathan Hightman on a Craigslist forum. The latter was recently charged with financial crimes against her.
The couple lived together in Gillette, Wyoming until recently. According to court documents, between February and March, the spouse transferred nearly $3,700 from the woman’s bank account to his own and spent an additional $3,230 on his credit card.
The African woman’s last video conference with her parents was on February 24, a discussion full of cute antics. But behind the jokes, there were clues that something was wrong.
When her face appeared on the phone screen, her father, Francis Kambo, teased her that she looked hungry and tired. Her smile was more muted, he noticed. Her short hair, usually braided, was tousled.
“Drink hot milk and relax,” he whispered to her from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
A month later – less than three years after Gakwa left Kenya for the United States – his family reported him missing. At the time of the WhatsApp call, Gakwa’s parents were unaware that she was living in Wyoming with a man she met on a dating forum.
Little did they know, police would later charge the man with withdrawing money from his checking account, overcharging his credit card and deleting his email account. Little did they know that six months would pass without a word from her.
“She’s always been a daddy girl,” Francis Kambo said in a recent phone interview with CNN from Nairobi. The father then sighed deeply.
“She should be home for Christmas this year. I wanted to buy her a ticket myself to come if she can’t afford it,” he added, his voice shaking.
“Now I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.”
Irene Gakwa and her father Francis Kambo. (CNN)
Irene Gakwa’s troubled family spans two continents. His parents live in Nairobi, while his two older brothers, Chris Munga and Kennedy Wainaina, live in the town of Meridian, Idaho, a suburb of Boise.
Her father became concerned in late February when she failed to return repeated video calls. It was unusual for the 32-year-old to speak to her parents every other day.
The couple continually drives 12 hours from their home in Meridian, Idaho, to participate in local searches.
The text messages sent from the 32-year-old’s device sounded strange, according to her family. Instead of writing in a mix of Swahili and Kenyan, the messages were in stilted English — as if someone was using Google Translate to send them, said Wainaina, her older brother.
In early March, the parents received short messages via WhatsApp, some of which were excuses to explain why she wasn’t making video calls.
“Dad, I dropped my phone in the water and now the microphone isn’t working,” they received.
Another read: “I just want you to know that I love and miss you and mom.”
version of the spouse
Her boyfriend told police she packed up and left. The last message to the parents came on March 9, her father said.
The three siblings share a family mobile phone tariff. After being unable to reach her, Gakwa’s brothers went through her phone records and called a close friend she had spoken to on a number of occasions.
That’s how they found out she lived with boyfriend Nathan Hightman, 39, in a modest three-bedroom house in Gillette.
The couple formed in 2020 but broke up several times, Wainaina said. Her brothers believed they had broken up, unaware that the couple had rekindled their romance and moved in together.
Chris Munga and his wife Gyoice Abatey. (CNN)
Her brothers reported her missing to Gillette police on March 20, and an officer spoke to Hightman that same day, according to an affidavit.
The spouse told the officer 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 colored dark-colored SUV, according to the affidavit.
He told police he hasn’t heard from her since. He also said he withdrew money from her bank account so that she would have to contact him if she needed the money, the affidavit said.
Hightman did not respond to the brothers’ request to return his belongings to their home, Wainaina said. They begged him to give them his documents, including his Kenyan passport, but Hightman refused, Wainaina added.
A person of interest
The man is believed to be a person interested in his disappearance and has “not made himself available to investigators who are trying to resolve issues that remain in the investigation,” Gillette Police said in a statement.
“We believe he has information regarding Irene’s disappearance, but he has chosen not to release that information to law enforcement at this time,” said Gillette Police Detective Dan Strup.
CNN made several attempts to reach Hightman, but he got no further. CNN also left messages for its representative, Dallas Lamb, but received no response.
Hightman was not charged in Gakwa’s disappearance, but has been suspected of financial crimes against her since her disappearance.
Gillette police arrested him in May and charged him with two counts of theft, one count of improper use of a credit card and two counts of intellectual property crimes for allegedly changing her bank account password and deleting her email account, after she disappeared.
He also changed his bank passwords and deleted his Gmail account, according to court documents. All of the changes were made from an IP address linked to Hightman after he told police Gakwa had moved, according to the affidavit of probable cause.
“This would indicate that Nathan Hightman accessed Irene’s account, withdrew funds and changed the password to deny Irene access,” the affidavit reads.
“These transactions began on February 25, 2022 and continued through March 2022.”
Hightman pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on $10,000 bail. His pre-hearing conference is scheduled for November.