The search for a woman in Wyoming centers on a mysterious barrel

(CNN) — The console of Stacy Koester’s black Audi is stocked with items not found in most cars: blue latex gloves. Allergy medicine. Bandages. Small utility knives.

She is not a doctor who makes house calls. She is part of a team of women in Gillette, Wyoming who spend much of their time looking for clues in the case of a missing woman they never met.

Irene Gakwa was last seen by her family during a video call on February 24 and was reported missing in late March. She was 32 years old at the time. The Kenyan immigrant lived in Gillette with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, who is considered a person of interest in her disappearance. He is separately charged with five felony counts for allegedly transferring money from her bank account, changing her online banking password, draining her credit card and deleting her email account after she disappeared.

Local volunteers gather in Gillette, Wyoming to search for clues in the disappearance of Irene Gakwa.

Wearing T-shirts with the words “Where’s Irene?” and “Team Irene,” the women have driven hundreds of miles in their cars, scouring the vast high plains of Campbell County in search of anything that might help solve the mystery.

Last weekend, their search included about two dozen people, 10 horses and ATVs donated by local residents to help them explore the area from a higher vantage point.

A big focus of their search is a 55-gallon metal barrel that Gillette police say may be related to the case.

“We believe the barrel is a key part of the investigation,” Koester said.

Barrel ‘is an item of interest,’ police say

In a May statement, Gillette police said they are “requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal barrel, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county.”

Police have refused to say why they are seeking details about the barrel or what role it may have played in Gakwa’s disappearance.

But Gakwa’s older brother, Kennedy Wainaina, revealed that Gillette police told the family that a neighbor said he saw what appeared to be a barrel fire burning in Hightman’s backyard between late February and March.

Police told them they searched Hightman’s property but didn’t find him, Wainaina told CNN.

In a statement to CNN, Dan Stroup, the lead detective on the case, declined to share additional details about the barrel or Wainaina’s claim.

“I cannot comment on the barrel other than that it is an item of interest that we would like to examine as part of this investigation,” he said.

Women helping search for Irene Gakwa put up signs seeking information June 18 in Gillette, Wyoming.

CNN has left text messages and emails with two Hightman neighbors, but has not received a response. CNN has also reached out to Hightman for comment, but has not received a response.

Koester and others are now combing the area for the drum, though their search is complicated by the fact that northeastern Wyoming is littered with oil and natural gas fields and, by default, oil drums. Many of them are on private property that cannot be accessed without the permission of the owners.

Investigators have said they are following several leads into Gakwa’s disappearance, including a cryptic one that “indicates that Irene may have been taken to a rural area, a mine, or an oil and gas location … in a passenger vehicle or an SUV,” according to a statement issued in April.

Gillette police say they are seeking information about a gray or silver Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho 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, Stroup told CNN. He declined to provide additional details.

“This is still very active research,” Stroup said. “Rest assured, our team is working diligently to resolve this case.”

A group of women at Gillette do frequent searches

Koester and his search co-organizer, Heidi Kennedy, are on a mission to find out what happened to Gakwa.

Born and raised in Kenya, Gakwa moved to Idaho in May 2019 hoping to launch a career in healthcare. A petite woman, she is just over 1.50 meters tall and weighs around 40 kg.

She moved to Gillette in the summer of 2021, but was unknown to local volunteers who participated in the search. “She is a member of our community,” Kennedy said. “We have to keep looking.”

Gakwa’s two brothers live in a suburb of Boise, Idaho, while their parents are in Kenya. So Koester and Kennedy have taken the lead in local grassroots efforts to find answers.

Chris Gakwa and his wife, Gyoice Abatey, attend a vigil for his missing sister, Irene Gakwa, at a park in Gillette, Wyoming.

Their efforts have become a lifeline for a family trying to remain hopeful, but fearing the worst.

“These women, I have no words to explain how they have helped our family,” Wainaina said. “They have become our family at Gillette, they are our feet on the ground. They have kept us informed of everything that happens with the searches. We have tried to give them money to pay for some of the costs of the search, but they have said no.”

Koester and Kennedy have encouraged a group of women, mostly locals, to conduct searches on Saturdays in the Gillette area several times a month. Sometimes a dozen people show up. Other days, about two dozen. Wainaina and other members of the Kenyan community in the greater Boise area sometimes make the 12-hour drive to join them.

In recent weeks, searchers have rummaged through garbage bags, peered into dumpsters and walked through drainage tunnels.

“Sometimes I worry that the only thing we miss is the one that will have answers,” Koester said.

They have promised to turn anything suspicious over to the Gillette Police Department.

They also focus attention on Hightman

Hightman, 39, has pleaded not guilty to financial charges and is scheduled to go on trial in December.

He is considered a person of interest in her disappearance and “has not made himself available to detectives seeking to resolve questions that exist in the investigation,” Gillette police said in a statement.

“We believe he has information regarding Irene’s disappearance, but he has chosen not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time,” Stroup said.

Hightman told investigators he last saw Gakwa in late February, when he came home one night, packed his clothes in two plastic bags and left in a dark-colored pickup truck, according to the probable cause affidavit. He told police that he hadn’t heard from her since.

CNN has made repeated attempts to reach Hightman by phone, text and email, but has not responded.

Koester and other neighbors have gathered outside Hightman’s home, holding signs and chanting, “Nate, where’s Irene?”

Nathan Hightman is charged with financial crimes against Irene Gakwa. Before his disappearance, the couple lived together in Gillette, Wyoming.

Koester also launched a TikTok account dedicated to finding Gakwa and began posting videos in June, urging local residents to join the search.

Last week, Hightman filed a stalking protection order against Koester, accusing her of threatening him, sharing his personal information in the videos and harassing him with unsolicited text messages and phone calls.

In her petition, filed in Campbell County Circuit Court, she said Koester walked past her house while yelling her name and posted her schedule online to incite people against her.

Koester denied the allegations and said Hightman is trying to silence her. She said that she sent him several text messages in July, imploring him to help them find Gakwa.

“I don’t care about your criminal charges…” Koester wrote in a text shared with CNN. “Irene is a different story though…she’s just missing. Please tell me where to look.”

Hightman did not respond to messages, Koester said.

A judge dismissed Hightman’s request Thursday, said Joseph Bolton, clerk of the Campbell County Circuit Court.

The searchers promised his family that they will continue to search

In the meantime, Kennedy and Koester say they will continue to rally the group of women, mostly from the Gillette area, to continue the search.

As mothers of daughters, they have promised Gakwa’s family that they will continue searching until they find her or there is a resolution to her case.

“We just want them to find her. We want to get some closure for her family, no matter how long it takes, I hope it doesn’t take too long,” Kennedy said. “She could be one of us, our mothers, children. We have to try to find her or get answers.”

Lacey Ayers talks with Stacy Koester, left, and Melissa Bloxom as they put up signs with an image of Irene Gakwa on a patio in Gillette, Wyoming.

Kennedy and Koester have started a group message with Gakwa’s family in Idaho and Kenya to keep them updated on developments. After months of searching, there isn’t much new to report. But they say they are not giving up yet.

Some days, while running errands, the women take a detour down a country lane instead of a busy street, trying to focus on a quick search. Their first searches were a chaotic “mess,” Koester said, but they’ve since learned to be more organized and focused. The next search for her is on September 24.

Koester gives the searchers a bag that includes medication in case of contact with insects or plants they are allergic to, and knives to cut through any tangled objects. She has bandages on hand for unexpected bruises on rough terrain.

The organizers do not disclose the search locations in advance to avoid any preemptive movement of evidence. They use an app to keep track of their searches so they don’t go through the same area twice.

“I’m not a criminal, but I try to think like one,” Koester said. “If you wanted to hide something, where would you put it?”

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