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Irene Gakwa’s live-in boyfriend confesses he stole money from her account after she vanished

By Faith Karimi, CNN

The live-in boyfriend of missing woman Irene Gakwa has pleaded guilty to stealing money from her in the weeks after she vanished a year ago in Wyoming.

Gakwa’s family last saw her on a video call on February 24, 2022, and reported her missing about a month later. She was 32 at the time, and lived with the boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, in Gillette, Wyoming.

Hightman, 39, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one felony count each of theft, unlawful use of a credit card and crimes against intellectual property. He was led away in handcuffs after the hearing and is expected to remain in jail until his sentencing.

Several of Gakwa’s family members attended the hearing with a group of local supporters who wore T-shirts and hats with the words, “Where’s Irene Gakwa?” The family members told CNN that after months of frustration and delays, watching Hightman escorted from the courtroom in handcuffs after his bail was revoked was a relief.

“I didn’t expect it at all … and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was priceless to see him get handcuffed right in front of my eyes,” said Gakwa’s brother, Kennedy Wainaina. “I took a deep breath when I saw him leave in handcuffs. We finally got something we have been asking for more than a year now.”

Hightman has not been charged in Gakwa’s disappearance. But Gakwa’s sister-in-law, Gyoice Abatey, said the guilty plea gives the family hope that her case has not been forgotten.

“It’s been a year and he’s been walking around free while we don’t know where Irene is,” she said. “We are beginning to see some justice.”

In the weeks after Gakwa went missing, Hightman withdrew nearly $3,700 from her bank account and spent $3,230 on her credit card, court documents show. Hightman told investigators he withdrew the funds to force her to contact him when she ran out of money following her disappearance.

Hightman had pleaded not guilty to the financial charges last year after investigators said he stole the money, changed Gakwa’s banking account password and deleted her email account. As part of the plea deal prosecutors dropped two related charges, Wainaina said.

The prosecutor, Campbell County Attorney Nathan Henkes, did not respond to a request for comment. CNN has reached out to Hightman’s attorney, Dallas Lamb, for comment.

Prosecutors told Gakwa’s family that Hightman faces up to 23 years in prison at his sentencing, before District Judge James M. “Mike” Causey. A sentencing date has not been set.

More than a year later, what happened to Gakwa remains a mystery

Gakwa moved from Kenya in May 2019 to attend nursing school in the Boise, Idaho, area, where her two older brothers live. She met Hightman on a Craigslist forum and moved to Gillette with him in July 2021.

For months, Gakwa’s family has sought answers about what happened to the nursing student who had dreams of working in an American hospital.

Her family reported her missing to the Gillette Police Department on March 20, 2022, after they could not reach her for weeks via video calls, her favorite form of communication.

Hightman told police that 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 or heard from her since.

In April, Gillette police issued a statement naming Hightman “a person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance, saying, “he has not made himself available to detectives” looking for answers.

During searches at Hightman’s home investigators recovered a shovel and boots he had bought at a Walmart in late February last year using Gakwa’s Visa card, according to court documents.

Gillette police arrested Hightman in May and charged him with the financial crimes. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $10,000 bond, which was revoked Tuesday.

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.”

Over the past 11 months, a group of women in Gillette have led periodic search parties for the drum or any potential clues to Gakwa’s disappearance.

Stacy Koester, who lives in Gillette and has been organizing the searches, said she was heartened to see Hightman’s conviction.

“It was a small victory, but such a beautiful one. To see him put in handcuffs and the look on his face when he realized he is actually being held accountable for his crimes, it was priceless,” she told CNN. “I believe with all my heart the big victory is coming and I am more confident now than ever that we will find out what happened to Irene and where she is so that … (the) family can get peace and closure.”

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