This story has been corrected to reflect that Irene Gakwa disappeared in 2022.
(NewsNation) — There have been significant new developments in the search for a Wyoming woman who vanished after meeting her fiancé on Craigslist.
NewsNation began following Irene Gakwa’s case last summer. She disappeared in 2022 and her fiancé never reported it. But now he has admitted that instead of contacting police, he was stealing from her accounts after she went missing.
Video shows federal agents moving in on the man’s home, but while there is some movement in the case, Gakwa’s family is still desperate to know where she is.
When Gakwa moved from her birthplace in Kenya to Idaho and began taking classes to become a nurse, it seemed like a huge success. But when she met Nathan Hightman on Craigslist, her family wasn’t sold.
”I will say the truth. I mean, I really didn’t like him,” said Christopher Gakwa, Irene’s brother. “But you know, what do you do?”
Irene Gakwa and Hightman moved to Gillette, Wyoming.
Gakwa typically texted her family every day. On Feb. 24, 2022, she had a video call with her father in Nairobi, Kenya. After that, her calls stopped and her texts, once peppered with her native Swahili, turned to English only.
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That was a noticeable switch for her family. Tarisai Githu is Gakwa’s cousin, but they’re close enough to call each other “sister.”
“Not communicating with her dad, to me, that was the biggest red flag, because I know the relationship that they have, they are super close,” Githu said.
Gakwa’s brothers drove 800 miles to Gillette to find out what was going on.
Hightman told them Gakwa had packed her clothes into two plastic bags and announced she was leaving Gilette, before entering a dark-colored SUV and leaving.
The community sprang into action, hunting for Gakwa on foot, by horseback and using cadaver dogs. They also turned to social media to get the word out.
Lead searcher Stacy Koester coordinated the coverage of hundreds of miles, helping police, who issued a be-on-the-lookout-for for a 55-gallon metal drum that could be abandoned or buried.
“When it was winter out, a lady sent me a message and said, hey, you know, now that the snow is here, there’s a weird barrel on my property,” Koester said.
Police and FBI agents scoured Hightman’s home, bringing in their own cadaver dogs. One after another, the dogs paid close attention to a spot in the garage and a flower bed visible from the street.
Wyoming journalist Jennifer Kocher covered Gakwa’s disappearance. She told NewsNation there’s little information on what led to the search.
“The police and the FBI are acting on sealed warrants. So nobody has any idea. What prompted that search? What tip came in? Or what evidence encouraged the police to come do that thorough search? Because that was their second time at the house,” Kocher said.
The most movement in the case has come from Gakwa’s finances. Police arrested Hightman and charged him with draining her bank accounts, deleting her email account and using her credit card at Walmart to buy a shovel, a pair of boots and a pair of pants.
In the police report, Hightman said he did all this to force Gakwa to contact him in the event she needed money.
Hightman appeared in court on those charges, where he shocked Gakwa’s family by changing his plea to guilty.
Gakwa’s older brother, Kennedy Wainaina, and his partner, Lucinda Anewenah, were in the courtroom.
“It was tough. When I walked in, I saw him. I wanted to throw up, you know, just to see him see I was just disgusted,” Anewenah said.
The judge revoked Hightman’s bond, so he has been waiting for sentencing in jail.
“I think it just clicked for us. And we had a sense of relief. When we saw the bailiffs handcuff him, oh my God, he’s going to jail. He’s going to jail,” Anewenah said.
Though it took an effort to get to the hearing, Wainaina said it was worth it.
“We drove 12 hours there and 12 hours back, but it was worth the one hour that we were there to show that there is actually somebody behind her. She has a family. There’s people missing her, there’s people wondering about her,” Wainaina said.
But what the family really wants is answers.
“Anything done in the dark will come to light. The hardest thing is waiting for that light to come through,” Githu said.
When they get those answers, the family hopes they can focus on the loving memories they have of Gakwa.
“You just hope that it’s going to be soon, but soon can be next year. Soon can be in two years, soon can be next month. But my prayer is that by the end of this year, we know what happened to our sister,” Githu said.