Irene Gakwa: The search for a missing woman in Wyoming revolves, in part, around a 55-gallon drum.




CNN

The console of Stacy Koester’s black Audi is stocked with items not found in most cars: blue latex gloves. Allergy medicine. bandages Low utility the knives

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

Irene Gakwa was last seen by her family in a video call on February 24 and was reported missing in late March. He was 32 years old then. The Kenyan immigrant lived in Gillette with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, who is considered a person of interest in the disappearance. She is charged with five counts of transferring money from her bank account, changing her online banking password, maxing out her credit card and deleting her email account after she disappeared.

“Where’s Irene?” wearing shirts that say and “Team Irene,” the women have driven hundreds of miles in their cars, scouring the vast plains of Campbell County in search of anything that might help solve the mystery.

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

A major focus of their search is a 55-gallon metal drum that Gillette police say may be connected to the case.

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

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

Police have declined to say why the drum is running or what role it 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 in a drum in Hightman’s yard sometime 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 on the case, declined to share more details about the drumbeat or Wainaina’s assertion.

“I can’t comment on the barrel other than it’s an interesting item we’d like to look at as part of this investigation,” he said.

Women helping to find Irene Gakwa put up posters seeking information June 18 in Gillette, Wyoming.

CNN has left messages via text and email with Hightman’s two neighbors, but has not heard back. CNN also reached out to Hightman for comment, but has not heard back.

Koester and others are now combing around the drum, though their search is complicated by the fact that northeastern Wyoming is full of oil and natural gas fields, and naturally, oil barrels. Many of them are on private property that cannot be entered without the owners’ permission.

Investigators said they are pursuing several leads into Gakwa’s disappearance, including that “Irene may have been driven to a rural area, a mining site, or an oil and gas location … in a passenger vehicle or crossover SUV.” statement released in April.

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

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

“It’s still a very active investigation,” Stroup said. “Please be assured that our team is working diligently to resolve this case.”

Koester and his search 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 to pursue a career in healthcare. A petite woman, she is over 5 meters tall and weighs around 90 kilos.

He moved to Gillette in the summer of 2021, but the local volunteers involved in the search did not know him. “He’s 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 have taken the lead in local, grassroots efforts to find answers.

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

Their efforts have become lifelines for a family trying to stay hopeful, but fearing the worst.

“These women, I have no words to explain how they have helped our family,” Wainaina said. “They have become our family at Gillette, our feet are on the ground. We have been informed of everything that is happening with the searches. We tried to give them money to pay for some of the expenses incurred in the search, but they said no.”

Koester and Kennedy have encouraged a group of mostly local women for Saturday sweeps 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 Kenyan community in Greater Boise sometimes make the 12-hour drive to join them.

In recent weeks, searchers have rummaged through garbage bags, peered into garbage cans and walked through drainage tunnels.

“Sometimes I worry that the one thing we forget is the answers,” Koester said.

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

Hightman, 39, has pleaded not guilty to the financial charges and will be sentenced in December.

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

“We believe he has information about Irene’s disappearance, but he has decided not to give that information to the police at this time,” Stroup said.

Hightman told investigators he last saw Gakwa in late February when he returned home one night, put his clothes in two plastic bags and left them in a dark-colored SUV, according to the probable cause affidavit. She said she hadn’t heard from him since then.

CNN has made repeated attempts to reach Hightman by phone, text and email, but he has not responded.

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

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

tKoester also launched a TikTok account dedicated to finding Gakwa and began posting videos in June, asking local residents to join the search.

Last week, Hightman filed a protective order against Koester, accusing him of threatening her, sharing her personal information in videos and making unsolicited texts and phone calls.

In her petition filed in Campbell County Circuit Court, she said Koester drove by her house while yelling her name and posted her schedule online to incite people against her.

Koester denied the allegations, saying he is trying to silence Hightman. She said he sent her several text messages in July, asking her to help find Gakwa.

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

Hightman did not respond to messages, Koester said.

A judge denied Hightman’s request Thursday, said Joseph Bolton, Campbell County Circuit Court Clerk.

In the meantime, Kennedy and Koester say they will continue to assemble a team of mostly women from the Gillette area to continue the search.

As the daughter’s mother, Gakwa’s family has promised to continue searching until she is found or there is a solution to her case.

“We just want to find it. We want to bring closure to his family, although it takes time, I hope it doesn’t take long,” Kennedy said. “It could be one of us, our mothers, the children. We have to try to find him or get answers.”

Lacey Ayers talks with Stacy Koester, left, and Melissa Bloxom as they put up signs with the image of Irene Gakwa in a backyard in Gillette, Wyoming.

Kennedy and Koester have started a group message with Gakwa’s family in Idaho and Kenya to update them on developments. After months of watching, there isn’t much new to report. But they say they are not giving up yet.

Some days, while running errands, the women will take a detour down country roads instead of a busy street, trying to fit in a quick search. Their first searches were a chaotic “hot mess,” Koester said, but they’ve since learned to be more organized and focused. The next search will be held on September 24.

Koester gives searchers a bag of medicine in case they come into contact with bugs or plants they’re allergic to, and knives to cut up messy items. Keeps bandages handy for accidental bruises on rough terrain.

Organizers do not reveal search locations in advance to prevent evidence movement. They use an app to track their searches so they don’t go through 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?”