GILLETTE, Wyo. — On Thursday, a Campbell County judge granted a motion to continue the trial for a missing Gillette woman’s fiancé, who faces multiple felonies for intellectual and financial crimes against her.
The trial for Nathan Hightman — a person of interest in the disappearance of 32-year-old Gillette resident Irene Gakwa who is also accused of using her financial and intellectual information without permission — has been pushed to 2023 with a new pre-trial date set for Jan. 4 and a jury trial scheduled for Feb. 6, Campbell County court records say.
Hightman is charged with transferring thousands of dollars out of Gakwa’s bank account to his own, charging purchases on her credit cards, and changing her banking and email passwords, all without permission and after she reportedly disappeared, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
The decision to postpone his pre-trial and jury trial came two days after his defense filed a motion for continuance on Oct. 25, asking for more time in light of recent warrants granted to and executed by the Gillette Police Department and other law enforcement agencies on Hightman’s residence.
The results of that search have not been publicly disclosed.
Additionally, the motion requests a judge take into consideration that Hightman continues to be under immense public scrutiny in regards to Gakwa and her alleged disappearance, with the story garnering both national and international media attention.
The prosecution, Chief Deputy and Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Henkes, did not object to the motion for continuance, court records show.
This is the second time a judge has granted a continuance in Hightman’s case, the first occurring in September 2022, when his pre-trial was pushed back to November and the jury trial to December, per court documents.
Gakwa’s family expressed frustration upon learning that Hightman’s case had been postponed a second time, days before they planned on returning to Gillette for his trial.
Months of calling Gillette authorities, including the Campbell County Attorney’s Office, for updates on Hightman’s case have only led to more frustration, with the family having to make do with minimal information coupled with vague assurances for future updates.
Chris Gakwa, Irene’s brother, says those updates have not come as he and the rest of Irene’s family believed they would, adding that he video calls the investigators overseeing his sister’s case every Wednesday hoping to hear something new.
“All they are saying is that it’s an ongoing investigation and they cannot tell us anything,” Chris said.
Irene’s other brother, Kennedy Wainaina, said he wasn’t happy with the court date being changed again, especially since it was already changed once with the first order granting a continuance in September.
“It’s very frustrating for all of us, you know? It’s something that we’ve been waiting for for a while,” Wainaina said. “First it was Sept. 3, and Sept. 3 came and we found out the day before that it was changed.”
Wainaina said that this time around, they kept in closer contact with the County Attorney’s Office and mentioned they planned on coming down for Hightman’s trial in November.
“They said, ‘Well, don’t plan on coming, they filed a motion for it to be moved,’” Wainaina said, adding they were told on Oct. 27 that the motion had been granted.
He said it was weird, for him, to not be informed of the status of Hightman’s case as a member of Irene’s family, who are doing what they can to represent her given the fact that she isn’t there to represent herself as a victim in Hightman’s criminal case.
It isn’t much, according to Wainaina, who said the information being shared with the family is the same limited information being shared with the public.
“We try to be involved and we try to follow up. We’re not trying to annoy anybody, we’re just trying to follow up and find justice for my sister,” Wainaina said, adding they have been told by local detectives that there is additional information that can’t be released to them.
“I’m stubborn; I’ll call every day,” Wainaina said. He feels that the local authorities — if they can’t release details of the case — should at the very least keep the family in the loop as it pertains to Hightman.
First reported missing on March 20, 2022, by her family, Irene has not been heard from since a video call at the end of February. Hightman was the last person to see her and told police investigating her disappearance that she came one night to grab some belongings and then left in a dark-colored SUV, according to the GPD.
Hightman has not cooperated with the investigation and has refused to answer questions, per GPD, which says he remains a person of interest in her disappearance.
Investigators believe Irene could have been taken to a rural area, mine site, or oil location sometime between Feb. 24 and March 20.
Additional requests for information from the public identified a silver or gray Subaru Crosstrek as an item of interest in the case, per GPD. The vehicle may have appeared out of place in rural areas of Campbell County and police have also asked for information about a 55-gallon barrel that could have been used for burning.
According to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, Irene’s phone is not pinging on any network.