A Kenyan who moved to the United States to pursue a romantic dream hasn’t been seen since February. This disappearance has raised suspicions in his family, more than 14,400 kilometers away.
Irene Gakwa met Nathan Hightman on a Craigslist forum. The latter was recently accused of financial crimes against her.
The couple lived together until recently in Gillette, Wyoming. Between February and March, the spouse transferred nearly $ 3,700 from her bank account to his and spent an additional $ 3,230 on her credit card, according to court documents.
Loved ones destroyed
The African’s last videoconference with her parents took place on February 24, a discussion full of sweet antics. But behind the jokes, there were clues that something was wrong.
When her face appeared on the phone screen, her father, Francis Kambo, teased her saying she looked hungry and tired. Her smile was more subdued, she noticed. Her short hair, usually braided, was tousled.
“Make sure you drink warm milk and relax,” he whispered to her from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
A month later, less than three years after Gakwa left Kenya for the United States, his family reported him missing. At the time of the WhatsApp call, Gakwa’s parents were unaware that she lived in Wyoming with a man she met on a dating forum.
They also had no way of knowing that the police would later accuse the man of withdrawing money from his bank account, overloading his credit card, and deleting his e-mail account. They imagined even less that six months would pass without a word from him.
“She’s always been dad’s daughter,” Francis Kambo said in a recent telephone interview with CNN from Nairobi. The father then gave a deep sigh.
“He was supposed to be home for Christmas this year. I would have bought her the ticket myself to have her come if she couldn’t afford it, ”she added, her voice shaking.
“Now I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.”
Irene Gakwa and her father, Francis Kambo. (CNN)
Irene Gakwa’s worried family spans two continents. Her parents live in Nairobi while her two older brothers, Chris Munga and Kennedy Wainaina, live in the city of Meridian, Idaho, a suburb of Boise.
Her father became concerned in late February when she was unable to answer repeated video calls. It was unusual for the 32-year-old, who spoke to her parents on alternate days.
The couple constantly drive 12 hours from their Meridian, Idaho home to participate in local searches.
Text messages sent by the 32-year-old’s device sounded strange, according to her family. Instead of writing in a mixture of Swahili and Kenyan, her messages were in broken English, as if someone was using Google Translate to send them, said Wainaina, her older brother.
In early March, parents received short messages via WhatsApp, some of which were excuses to explain why he wasn’t making video calls.
“Dad, I dropped the phone in the water and now the microphone doesn’t work,” they received.
Another reading: “I just want you to know that I love and miss you and mom.”
The spouse’s version
Her boyfriend told the police she had packed her bags and left. The last message to the parents came on March 9, her father said.
The three brothers share a family cell plan. After Gakwa’s brothers were unable to contact her, they went through her phone records and called a close friend she had talked to on several occasions.
That’s how they found out she was living with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, 39, in a modest three-bedroom house in Gillette.
The couple formed in 2020 but broke up multiple times, Wainaina said. Her siblings believed they had separated and were unaware that the couple rekindled their romance and moved in together.
Chris Munga and his wife, Gyoice Abatey. (CNN)
Her brothers reported her missing to the Gillette Police Department on March 20, and an officer spoke to Hightman the same day, according to an affidavit.
The spouse told the officer he last saw Gakwa in late February, when she came home one evening, put her clothes in two plastic bags and left them in a dark-colored SUV, according to the affidavit.
He told the police that he hadn’t heard from her since. She also said she withdrew the money from his bank account, so she should have contacted him if he needed the money, according to the affidavit.
Hightman did not respond to the brothers’ request to return his belongings to their home, Wainaina said. They begged him to provide them with his documents, including his Kenyan passport, but Hightman refused, Wainaina added.
A person of interest
The man is considered a person interested in his disappearance and “has not made himself available to investigators trying to solve the problems that exist in the investigation,” Gillette police said in a statement.
“We believe he has information on Irene’s disappearance, but he has chosen not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Gillette police detective Dan Strup.
CNN made several attempts to reach Hightman, but did not follow up. CNN also left messages for its rep, Dallas Lamb, but received no response.
Hightman has not been charged with Gakwa’s disappearance, but has been suspected of financial crimes against her since her disappearance.
Gillette police arrested him in May and charged him with two counts of theft, one for illegal use of a credit card and two counts of intellectual property crime for allegedly changing his bank account password and deleted his e-mail account after his disappearance.
He also changed his bank passwords and deleted his Gmail account, according to court documents. All changes were made from an IP address associated with Hightman after the date he told police that Gakwa had moved, according to probable sworn lawsuit.
“This would indicate that Nathan Hightman had access to Irene’s account, withdrew money and changed the password to deny Irene access,” the affidavit reads.
“These transactions began on February 25, 2022 and continued until March 2022.”
Hightman pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on $ 10,000 bail. His pre-hearing conference is scheduled for November.