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Family searching for missing Kenyan immigrant who attended College of Western Idaho

Irene was reported missing in late March from Gillette, Wyoming, where she lived with her boyfriend. Her brother Christopher Gakwa said he just wants her home.

BOISE, Idaho — Before Irene Gakwa was reported missing earlier this year, the Kenyan immigrant was following her dreams here in the Treasure Valley.

She studied nursing at the College of Western Idaho but later moved out of the state. 

Irene was officially reported missing in late March from Gillette, Wyoming, where she lived with her boyfriend. Her brother, Christopher Gakwa, said the last time he saw Irene was on Thanksgiving of 2021, and he just wants her home.

Christopher said he thought she had moved to Phoenix shortly after he saw her last, and was unaware, like the rest of Irene's family, that she had moved to Wyoming with her boyfriend instead. 

That is, until some text messages raised red flags.

"Before I went to bed, I just decided to text her, 'Hey, how are you doing? It's been a while. I haven't talked to you. How is everything? How is school?' And she texts me back, but everything was in English," Christopher said. "She said she was good, and that school was going well. And that she was thinking about changing her number. And that didn't make any sense."

Christopher said there were two reasons why that would not make sense. One, the texts were in English and they normally communicated in Swahili. 

And two, because they had a family phone plan, so there was not any reason for her to switch, he said. 

After growing more concerned, Christopher said the family eventually called law enforcement. The police visited Irene and her boyfriend's house and, according to Christopher, her boyfriend told police Irene had moved out two weeks prior. 

Irene has been missing ever since. 

The Gillette Police Department told KTVB there have been no arrests made in relation to Irene's disappearance.

But according to a May news release from the Gillette Police Department, Irene's boyfriend, Nathan J. Hightman, is a person of interest in her disappearance. 

He has since been arrested and charged on five separate charges. As stated in a probable cause affidavit, it was determined Nathan had removed money from Irene's bank account, used her credit card without authorization, changed the banking password and deleted her Google account. 

In one "particular transaction," Hightman purchased a shovel, a pair of boots and a par of pants from Wal-Mart. Police found the boots and shovel after searching his house with a search warrant, according to the affidavit. 

Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police, said they are working with the FBI in this missing persons case. But law enforcement aren't the only people looking for Irene. 

Stacy Koester organizes weekly community searches for Irene. Koester said they sometimes search up to five times a week. 

"When you don't have closure for what happened to one of your family members," she said," it is the one thing that will keep you up at night."

While Koester said they will keep searching, the Gakwa family waits for answers and wonders if they will ever see Irene again. 

"Not knowing makes it kind of hard," Christopher said. "You know, we hope she comes home and uh, we hope that if something bad happened to her, we want the person who was responsible for that to be brought to justice." 

The Gillette Police Department in Wyoming is requesting information about a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned or abandoned within the county, according to a new release. 

If you know anything about Irene's disappearance, contact the Gillette Police Department.

There is also a Help Find Irene GoFundMe page set up. 

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