GILLETTE — Stacy Koester and Melissa Bloxom carried the wire frames and waterproof yard signs to where the newly cut lawn met the overgrown yard next door.
Placing the sign and frame in place, with a mallet in hand, Koester, 39, and Bloxom, 40, gently tapped each sign into the ground near the edge of the property line, leaving an image of Irene Gakwa facing the curtained-up house beyond the tall grass.
The juxtaposition couldn’t be more clear.
On one side, the grass was low and tight, well kept. On the other side, the grass grew tall and wild, a product of the unexpectedly wet spring and a measurement of how long the woman who once lived there, Irene, has been missing.
“Our big thing is we will not stop until we find her,” Koester said. “Until we get answers.”
While they placed several signs along the divide between two unassuming homes on Pathfinder Circle, Lacey Ayers, 34, whose mother lives on the maintained property, and Heidi Kennedy, 47, canvassed nearby homes in the Gillette subdivision, knocking on doors and seeking permission to place more signs depicting the missing woman throughout the neighborhood Irene had lived with her fiancé.
They had 40 signs to place that day. Wearing black T-shirts that read “Where’s Irene” on the back and large pins with the missing woman’s picture attached to the front, they approached the surrounding neighborhood.
More than four months have passed since Irene was last heard from. But the social media and on-the-ground efforts of a group of devout locals have added life to the ongoing search for Irene, as well as the search for answers to what happened to her.
While Irene’s family resides in Boise, Idaho and Kenya, those four women, among others captivated by the unanswered questions surrounding Irene’s disappearance, have been her family’s eyes and ears in Gillette.
“We’re Irene’s Gillette family. We’re going to be her family here. Because we’re all mothers, and if our kids went missing in a place where we didn’t live, a whole other country for her parents, we’d hope someone would help us find our kids,” Kennedy said.
“That’s just what you do. You do what you’ve got to do, because it could be your kid missing.”
Last heard from
Irene’s family said they last heard from Irene Feb. 24, but the investigation into her disappearance began March 20, when her family reported her missing to the Gillette Police Department.
The investigation and mystery has continued, leading to the arrest of her fiancé, Nathan J. Hightman, 38, who was charged with five felonies related to allegedly stealing money from Irene’s bank accounts, using her credit cards after her disappearance and deleting her Gmail account. But the answer to where Irene is, or what happened to her, remains as open-ended as it was when the search began.
Hightman was accused of emptying Irene’s bank account, held with Idaho Central Credit Union, deleting her Gmail account and maxing out her credit card, all after her Feb. 24 disappearance, according to court documents.
The first credit card purchase was captured on Walmart video surveillance, which showed Hightman use Irene’s card to buy a shovel, a pair of boots and pants from the store.
Hightman pleaded not guilty in District Court to two counts of theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property and unlawful use of a credit card. His pre-trial hearing is scheduled for September.
Police have not charged him in connection with Gakwa’s disappearance, although he was identified as a person of interest in the police investigation, which led to the alleged theft discoveries. Gakwa disappeared under “suspicious circumstances” and Hightman, after talking to police early into the investigation, has declined interview requests with police, according to a statement at the time of Hightman’s arrest in May.
Kennedy Wainaina, Gakwa’s older brother, has stayed in touch with detectives since the initial report was made. He still receives regular updates and phone calls, but by his own admission, the new information and leads have slowed down compared to the initial weeks and months.
“I think it slowed down and that’s just because there’s not as much information,” he said. “The effort is there, there’s just not as much information.”
With less new information to feed off of, it’s only natural that public interest begins to dwindle. Cases that go unsolved rarely become so at defining, easily identifiable moments. It’s a gradual process aided by the passing of time and the fading of memory.
Which is why the family and community members are fighting against that erasure, bringing two vans full of family and friends from Boise, Idaho, to Gillette to raise awareness and continue the search.
It takes a village
The women in Gillette organizing the candlelight vigil, search party and silent protest never met Irene themselves.
All four of them are mothers, which they said not only makes up for their lack of investigative experience, but it’s part of what drives them to care so much about helping a family they had never met find a woman they had never met. It’s exactly what they would want a community to do for them, if the unthinkable ever happened to one of their own.
However, the woman in Boise who got the online campaign started knows Irene well.
Gyoice Abatey, Irene’s sister-in-law, was close with her when they lived in Boise, but even before that, in Kenya, when Abatey, who is from Ghana, started dating Irene’s brother, Chris.
“Just naturally a quiet person, but very loving and caring,” Abatey said about Irene. “She always has everyone’s best interest at heart, always willing to help people. She’s always smiling, when she meets new people, she makes you put a smile on your face. A very approachable person.”
Irene moved from Kenya to join her brothers in Boise a few years ago, when she moved in with Abatey and Chris. Then she moved out and eventually met Hightman, with whom she moved with to Gillette in the summer of 2021.
When Irene went missing, Abatey took to Facebook to spark awareness and point anyone with potentially relevant information toward the police and the family.
“That’s how it started,” Abatey said. “We formed a Facebook group where we chat about ways that we can spread the word and how we can find Irene and bring Irene home.”
The page, “Find Irene Gakwa,” has more than 700 members and was the meeting point for the local search party, and where they connected with the family.
That’s how the locals connected with Abatey, sharing the message that “we never met Irene but we are here in this town. We just want to help you get answers.”
Irene’s brothers made the nearly 800-mile trip to Gillette not long after first reporting their sister missing. But in the time since, they have felt the local pulse through the community of people in Gillette invested in finding answers and keeping alive the search for Irene.
“I think the community has been tremendous,” Wainaina said. “These are people we don’t even know — we haven’t met, we’ve just met online — it’s amazing to think of the amount of money, time, effort they’ve put in just to help us out.”
Part of that effort includes the candlelight vigil, search party and silent protest planned in Gillette to maintain high awareness of Irene’s disappearance.
The public involvement stretches beyond Gillette and Campbell County. The family in Boise, Idaho, rented two vans to make the weekend trip to Gillette, bringing along others from their city who are invested in finding Irene, or at least finding answers.
Her disappearance has even gained slight national and international interest on social media, but has particularly taken hold among the family’s ties to Kenya, including parts of the Kenyan diaspora in the mountain region, Waimaina said.
From Kenya, their parents are following the news cycle and social media conversation, with others in their country, and Abatey’s home country of Ghana, hungry for updates and new information.
Wainaina said they are able to keep the family and that large extended circle up to date through WhatsApp, where they have large group messages and an exchange of ideas takes place.
“At the end of the day, there’s some things you don’t really think about,” Wainaina said. “Not everything will lead into something, but it’s kind of thinking outside the box. Having 200 people look at something is way better than just having me think about it.”
Honing in from Kenya or Boise to Gillette makes the search feel more manageable, but once in Gillette, it’s clear just how much space there is to scour, and how many possible answers there are to the big, lingering questions.
Where to begin
Campbell County is vast. Above the underground seas of coal and oil are endless stretches of prairie, with dirt roads and desolate paths carved throughout them.
That’s not unlike other rural parts of the Great Plains, but when it becomes the search radius for a lone missing person, its expansive, quiet nature comes into perspective.
“Campbell County’s huge,” Bloxom said. “There’s a lot of open area. And (the family doesn’t) even live here. We want to be available to them to do the footwork.”
Police have asked the public to call with information regarding a gray or silver Subaru Crosstrek trespassing on rural stretches of Campbell County between Feb. 24 and March 20, the time between when Irene was last heard from and reported missing.
That leaves a lot of ground to cover and few hints as to where to look. The public was also asked to report information about suspicious 55-gallon drums, one of which may have been burned or abandoned within the county.
No one notices how many 55-gallon drums there are laying around until they train their eyes for them and suddenly those drums become impossible to miss. It’s easy to drive past each lonesome county road, not worrying about what exists at its end, until the prospect of searching it comes to mind.
The reality of the situation is unknown. The area of land in question leaves endless possibilities, which somehow become even greater when considering the multiplying effects of time.
The search is daunting, the questions may be unanswerable and the potential outcomes are grim. As time goes by, the family and community members in the thick of Irene’s disappearance find themselves with less answers and less new leads.
But their sense of hope has not wavered.
“Until there’s not a reason to have hope, I don’t think anybody should quit hoping,” Koester said.
So as the days continue on, so does the effort to remind the community of its missing member.
Those searching do so out of hope for the best and in preparation for the worst. The outcome matters, but so does resolution. Without closure, limbo persists. And if finding answers is their only way out of the bardo, then they know exactly what to do.
“We’re just going to search,” Bloxom said. “We’re just searching.”