Boyfriend of Missing Nursing Student Irene Gakwa Pleads Guilty to Stealing Her Money After She Vanished

"We still have the big question lingering: Where is Irene?" says Irene Gakwa's brother, Kennedy Wainaina. "Hopefully answers are coming soon"

Irene Gawka rollout
Irene Gakwa.

The boyfriend of Wyoming nursing student Irene Gakwa has pleaded guilty to stealing her money, using her credit cards and deleting her email account after she went missing in 2022.

On Tuesday in Campbell County District Court, Nathan Hightman, 39, of Gillette, pleaded guilty to three of the five felonies he was accused of — one count each of theft, unlawful use of a credit card and crimes against intellectual property.

Gakwa's brother Kennedy Wainaina tells PEOPLE that after entering the plea, Hightman was led out of court in handcuffs. He was taken to jail, where he will remain until he is sentenced.

Wainaina tells PEOPLE that he, his brother and their parents in Kenya "are happy he is in jail."

Gakwa was 32 when she vanished in Feb. 2022 while she was living with Hightman in Gillette. The last time her family heard from her was on Feb. 24, 2022, when she spoke to her parents in Kenya in a video call on WhatsApp.

Hightman told police that one night in 2022, the woman known to be a shy homebody packed up her belongings, got into an SUV and left the home they shared.

He said he had no idea where she was.

'Justice for Irene Started Yesterday'

For Tuesday's hearing, Wainaina drove with family members from Gillette from Idaho. There they were joined by local supporters including Stacy Koester, who has led many searches for Gakwa, wearing t-shirts and hats emblazoned with the words, "Where's Irene Gakwa?"

Koester tells PEOPLE, "Yesterday was a small victory but a big boost in confidence in our Gillette Police Department and District Attorney's Office. It was a beautiful thing to see the happiness on the faces of Irene's family."

"I truly believe this is the start of justice for Irene and I am so thankful knowing Nathan Hightman is in jail. Justice for Irene started yesterday," she adds.

Irene Gakwa
Irene Gakwa's brother, Kennedy Wainaina and his sister-in-law Gyoice Abatey, (left,) along with Stacy Koester, (crouching down in center), who led many searches, and other supporters after Tuesday's court hearing in Gillette, Wyoming. Courtesy of Stacy Koester

Says Wainaina: "We are excited to see some movement but we still have the big question lingering: Where is Irene? Hopefully answers are coming soon."

Hightman entered the plea less than a week before his 10-day trial was expected to begin on April 3.

In exchange for his guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to drop two of the related charges.

After his arrest on May 11, 2022, Hightman initially pleaded not guilty to two counts of felony theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property and one count of unlawful use of a credit card, according to the court clerk.

Nathan Hightman
Nathan Hightman. Campbell Country Sheriff's Office

He was accused of stealing nearly $3,700 from Gakwa's checking account, charging $604.65 on her Visa card and maxing out her Capital One card in the amount of $3,230.65, court records show, the Gillette News Record reports.

He emptied her bank account and used her credit cards after Gakwa, went missing. He told police he took her money so she would contact him when she ran out of money.

He remains a "person of interest" in her missing person case but has not been charged in connection with her disappearance.

He had been released on $10,000 bail while awaiting trial, which the judge revoked on Tuesday.

A date for his sentencing has not yet been set.

He faces up to 23 years in prison and $23,000 in fines, County 17 reports.

Devastated Family Seeks Answers

With each day that passes, Gakwa's family loses hope that she will ever be found alive.

Gakwa moved to Boise in 2019 from her native Kenya to study nursing. She spent a lot of time with her older brothers who had come to the U.S. before she did — Wainaina, 44, and Chris Gakwa, 38 — as well as her nieces and nephews.

In 2020, she began dating Hightman after meeting him online on a Craigslist forum, according to her family.

Irene Gawka rollout
Jennifer Kocher/Cowboy State Daily

"He seemed quiet," Wainaina told PEOPLE previously. "Didn't say much. He told me he doesn't really have any friends."

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.

As Hightman and Gakwa's relationship grew more serious, the two began showing up less and less to family functions.

Alleging that Hightman was "controlling," Kennedy says, "He started isolating us from our sister."

Unbeknownst to Kennedy and his brother, in July 2021 Hightman and Gakwa up and moved from Boise to Gillette without telling them.

But she still spoke regularly to her parents in Kenya — until their last video call with them on Feb. 24, 2022.

They grew worried when they were unable to reach her on WhatsApp, but began receiving odd text messages from her that didn't sound like her at all.

After weeks passed with no word from his sister, Wainaina called the police that March and asked them to check on her.

What they learned from police was disturbing.

"Her boyfriend told them Irene took a couple of trash bags with her, got into a dark SUV and left," Wainaina told PEOPLE.

Missing Irene Gakwa
Irene Gakwa. City of Gillette/Facebook

Shortly after, they realized that her social media accounts had been mysteriously deleted. "That didn't sound like Irene," says Kennedy.

"All of us were just freaking out."

Despite numerous searches organized by the family and neighbors and an ongoing police investigation, Gakwa is still nowhere to be found.

In a May 22, 2022, statement, Gillette police said, "Information obtained through investigation suggests Irene went missing under suspicious circumstances."

Detectives, the statement continued, "are asking the public for any information concerning a gray or silver-colored Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates which may have been seen trespassing on private property or appearing out of place in rural areas of Campbell County between February 24, 2022 and March 20, 2022.

"The Gillette Police Department is also requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned and/or abandoned within the county."

A GoFundMe has been set up for a reward leading to information about Irene's whereabouts.

The Facebook page Find Irene Gakwa provides updates on her case.

Prosecutor Nathan Henkes had no comment. Hightman's attorney, Dallas Lamb, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

Anyone with information related to Gakwa's disappearance is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at 307-682-5155.

Related Articles