A criminal trial involving the boyfriend of a missing Wyoming woman has been postponed until next year, leaving her family frustrated by 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 was reported missing at the end of March. She was 32 at the time.
Her live-in boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, has not been charged in Gakwa’s disappearance, but is suspected of financial crimes against her following her disappearance. He was charged with five felonies for allegedly transferring money from his bank account, changing his online banking password, maxing out his credit card and deleting his email account after he disappeared.
The charges followed a search last spring of the home Hightman shared with Gakwa.
Hightman’s pretrial and jury trial were scheduled to begin in November and December, respectively, but were pushed back to January and February. This is the second change in two months – the pretrial and jury trial was originally scheduled for September and October, but Hightman’s public defender requested a postponement.
“Changing the dates only prolongs 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 have gotten everything he asked for. He can spend the holidays with his loved ones while Irene doesn’t.
For more than eight months, the family of the Kenyan immigrant has been searching for answers about her disappearance.
His parents live in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, while his two older brothers, Chris Munga and Wainaina, live in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho.
Gillette police have called Hightman a person of interest in his 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 lawyer also asked the judge to take into account the media attention surrounding Gakwa’s disappearance and the time needed to determine an “appropriate” potential plea deal in the financial crimes case.
Wainaina said their family had not received any information about the October search or what was found at the home Hightman shared with Gakwa. Gillette police referred CNN to its statement released on Oct. 13 that authorities were executing a search warrant that day because “analysis of the evidence has led to the development of an additional ground for return to the residence”.
Wainaina said the family discovered Hightman was seeking to postpone the trial when they called Campbell’s prosecutor’s office to request a meeting with the prosecutor at a preliminary hearing originally scheduled for Nov. 3.
“My brother and I live 800 miles from Gillette and we had taken time off, booked a hotel room and were ready to go to Wyoming for the pre-hearing conference,” Wainaina said. “Good thing I called to try to arrange a meeting, otherwise we would have come all the way for nothing.”
According to court records, prosecutor Nathan Henkes did not oppose the motion for an extension. Christa Kosola, a legal assistant who answered the phone at the Campbell County prosecutor’s office, said she would not comment on ongoing investigations.
Gakwa’s brothers reported him missing to the Gillette Police Department on March 20.
Hightman told police that Gakwa came home one night in late February, packed her clothes in two plastic bags and left them in a dark-colored SUV, according to a probable cause affidavit. He said he hadn’t seen or heard from her since.
CNN called, texted and emailed Hightman multiple times, but he did not respond.
In April, Gillette police released a statement naming him “a person of interest” in the disappearance of his girlfriend, saying he “did not make himself available to detectives” seeking answers .
“We believe he has information regarding Irene’s disappearance, but he has chosen not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Gillette Police Detective Dan told CNN. Strup, in August.
Gillette police arrested Hightman in May and charged him with two counts of theft, one count of unlawful use of a credit card and two counts of felony intellectual property for allegedly changing her bank 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 another $3,230 on his credit card, according to court documents. Hightman told investigators he withdrew the funds to force her to contact him when she needed the money.
Hightman, 39, pleaded not guilty to the financial charges.
During an initial search of Hightman’s home, investigators recovered a shovel and boots he had purchased at a Walmart in late February using Gakwa’s Visa card.
Since her disappearance, Gillette police investigators have shared some cryptic leads.
In April, they released a statement indicating that Gakwa may have been taken to a rural area, mining site, or oil and gas site in a passenger vehicle or crossover SUV.
The following month, Gillette police said they were requesting information about “a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned in the county.” They also said they were looking for information on a gray or silver Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates that may have entered private property, possibly in a rural area, between Feb. March 20. The car is registered to Hightman.
Investigators declined to provide further details, citing ongoing investigations.
Wainaina said he understands authorities cannot share all the details. But he hopes that in the months leading up to Hightman’s trial, they will receive updates directly from prosecutors.
“We don’t try to tell them how to do their job. We just want to know vital information before we read it in court documents or in the news,” Wainaina said. “We will continue to fight for my sister, who is not here to defend herself, until justice is served. We won’t give up until we find out what happened to Irene.
Meanwhile, a group of Gillette women continue their periodic search for clues to Gakwa’s disappearance. The next search is scheduled for November 12.