A criminal trial involving the boyfriend of a missing Wyoming woman has been postponed to next year, leaving her family frustrated over the second delay in the case in as many months.
Irene Gakwa was last seen by her family during a video call on February 24 and reported missing in late March. She was 32 at the time.
Her live-in boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, has not been charged in Gakwa’s disappearance but is a suspect in financial crimes against her after she went missing. He’s been charged with five felonies for allegedly transferring money from her bank account, changing her online banking password, maxing out her credit card and deleting her email account after she vanished.
The charges followed a search last spring of the home Hightman shared with Gakwa.
Hightman’s pretrial and jury trial were set to begin in November and December, respectively, but have been pushed back to January and February. This is the second change in two months – the pretrial and jury trial were originally set for September and October, but Hightman’s public defender asked for a postponement.
“Changing the dates is just prolonging the nightmare,” said Kennedy Wainaina, Gakwa’s brother. “It makes me wonder who the real victim is in this case because Nathan Hightman seems to be granted anything he has requested. He gets to spend the holidays with his loved ones while Irene does not.”
The FBI and other agencies searched Hightman’s house last month
For more than eight months, the family of the Kenyan immigrant has sought answers about her disappearance.
Her parents live in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi while her two older brothers, Chris Munga and Wainaina, live in a suburb of Boise, Idaho.
Gillette police have called Hightman a person of interest in her disappearance.
In a motion filed last week by Hightman’s public defender to postpone the financial crimes case, he cited a search of Hightman’s home in October by various agencies, including the FBI. The attorney also asked the judge to consider media attention surrounding Gakwa’s disappearance and the time needed to determine an “appropriate” potential plea agreement in the financial crimes case.
Wainaina said their family has not received information on the October search or what was found at the home Hightman shared with Gakwa. Gillette Police referred CNN to their statement issued on October 13, which said authorities were executing a search warrant that day because “analysis of evidence has led to the development of additional cause to return to the residence.”
Wainaina said the family discovered Hightman was seeking to postpone the trial when they called the Campbell Attorney’s Office to request a meeting with the prosecutor during a pretrial hearing originally set for November 3.
“My brother and I live 800 miles from Gillette and we had taken time off from work, reserved a hotel room and were ready to go to Wyoming for the pretrial conference,” Wainaina said. “Good thing I called to try and set up a meeting or we would have driven all the way there for nothing.”
Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Henkes did not object to the motion for continuance, according to court records. Christa Kosola, a legal assistant who answered the phone at the Campbell County Attorney’s Office, said they do not comment on ongoing investigations.
Hightman faces 5 felonies related to financial charges
Gakwa’s brothers reported her missing to the Gillette Police Department on March 20.
Hightman told police Gakwa came home one night in late February, packed her clothing in two plastic bags and left in a dark-colored SUV, according to an affidavit of probable cause. He said he hadn’t seen her or heard from her since.
CNN has called, texted and emailed Hightman several times, but he’s not responded.
In April, Gillette police issued a statement naming him “a person of interest” in his girlfriend’s disappearance, saying, “he has not made himself available to detectives” looking for answers.
“We believe he has information pertaining to the disappearance of Irene, but he has elected not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Gillette police detective Dan Stroup told CNN in August.
Gillette police arrested Hightman in May and charged him with two felony counts of theft, one felony count of unlawful use of a credit card, and two felony counts of crimes against intellectual property for allegedly changing her banking account password and deleting her email account after her disappearance.
Between February and March, he transferred nearly $3,700 from Gakwa’s bank account to his own and spent an additional $3,230 on her credit card, court documents allege. Hightman told investigators he withdrew the funds to force her to contact him when she needed money.
Hightman, 39, has pleaded not guilty to the financial charges.
Investigators have shared cryptic leads about Gakwa’s disappearance
During an initial search of Hightman’s house , investigators recovered a shovel and boots he bought at a Walmart in late February using Gakwa’s Visa card.
Gillette police shared a few cryptic leads about Gakwa’s disappearance but have declined to provide additional details, citing ongoing investigations. They have said they’re seeking information about a 55-gallon metal drum, “which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.”
In April, they released a statement saying Gakwa may have been taken to a rural area, mine site or oil and gas location in a passenger vehicle or crossover SUV.
The next month, Gillette police said they were requesting information about “a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.” They’ve also said they are seeking information on a gray or silver-colored Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates that may have trespassed on private property, possibly in a rural area, between February 24 and March 20. The car is registered to Hightman.
Investigators have declined to provide additional details, citing ongoing investigations.
Wainaina said he understands that authorities cannot share every detail. But he’s hoping that in the months leading up to Hightman’s trial, they will get updates from prosecutors directly.
“We are not trying to tell them how to do their job. We just want to know of vital information before we read about it in court documents or the news,” Wainaina said. “We will continue fighting for my sister, who is not here to defend herself, til justice is served. We will not quit til the day we find out what happened to Irene.”
Meanwhile, a group of local women in Gillette are continuing their periodic searches for clues in Gakwa’s disappearance. The next search is scheduled for November 12.