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The loved ones of a missing woman are pleading for answers from across the world.
Irene Wairimu Gakwa, 32, was last seen in Gillette, Wyoming — about 130 miles north of Casper — on Feb. 24, according to local police. Authorities named her reported live-in boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, 39, as a “person of interest” in her disappearance.
He was charged in May with several felonies which involved him allegedly stealing her money.
On Sunday, Irene’s tight-knit family spoke with CNN in hopes of gleaning information about the young woman’s disappearance. They began by describing the last time they spoke with Irene — on Feb. 24 — during on a WhatsApp video call from Kenya, explaining that Irene appeared tired and run-down.
“She was supposed to come home for Christmas this year,” said her father, Francis Kambo, from Nairobi.
Irene was born and raised in Kenya and moved to America less than three years before she disappeared. Her relatives were used to regular texts, which often consisted of a slang mix of Swahili and Kenyan. They grew concerned when they began receiving “odd” texts in early March that were in English.
One read, “Dad, I dropped my phone in the water and now the microphone doesn’t work.”
Another read, “I just want you to know I love you and miss you and mom.”
“The texts would be out of place,” said Kambo.
Several of Irene’s relatives — including a pair of brothers living in Meridian, Idaho — were then unable to get in touch with her.
One of the brothers, Kennedy Wainina, learned that Irene was living with her boyfriend, Hightman, in Gillette after scanning over phone records, which he could access because they were part of the same phone plan.
Relatives say Irene and Hightman had been in an on-and-off relationship since 2020 after meeting in Meridian, Idaho — which is about 800 miles west of Gillette. The couple moved in together before relocating to Wyoming in the summer of 2021, where Irene enrolled in Gillette Community College.
Loved ones were unaware that the couple was back together.
Irene’s brothers reported Irene missing on March 20.
Hightman told Gillette police that he hadn’t seen Irene since late February and that she packed her belongings in two plastic bags and left their three-bedroom home in a dark-colored SUV, according to records obtained by CNN. He reportedly admitted to emptying Irene’s bank account in an attempt to make her come back to him.
Hightman is accused of transferring nearly $3,700 from Irene’s bank account into his and spending an additional $3,230 with Irene’s credit card. Hightman was charged with two counts of theft and one count of unlawful use of a credit card for those crimes.
He is also charged with two counts of crimes against intellectual property, which stems from Hightman allegedly deleting Irene’s email account and changing her bank passwords after the date he claimed she vanished.
Hightman pleaded not guilty and is expected to appear in court in November.
“Hightman has declined interview requests from the Gillette Police Department,” said police, adding that information suggests “Irene went missing under suspicious circumstances.”
Irene’s family claims Hightman has refused to give them Irene’s belongings, including her traveling documents.
Since then, police have executed 24 search warrants in relation to Irene’s disappearance, according to CNN. In late February, police say Hightman used Irene’s credit card at a local Wal-Mart to purchase boots and a shovel.
In May, police appealed to the public for information about an incident seemingly related to Irene's disappearance.
“Detectives are asking the public for any information concerning a gray or silver-colored Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates which may have been seen trespassing on private property or appearing out of place in rural areas of Campbell County between Feb. 24, 2022 and March 20, 2022,”police said at the time. “The Gillette Police Department is also requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.”
Irene’s family continues to travel between Idaho and Wyoming to conduct desperate searches to find Irene, and have created a website dedicated to her disappearance called WhereIsIrene.com. They describe her as a college student working toward a nursing degree who “loves chai tea with bread every morning and is always smiling and laughing.”
“I just want to know the truth,” said Irene’s father. “I’m still hopeful, but my hope is dwindling. She knows my number. The fact that she’s not called…”
Irene is 5’1” and weighs about 89 pounds, according to NAMUS. She frequently visited her family in Meridian.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at 1-307-682-5155.
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