While Gakwa's mom is too emotional to even talk, her dad is still holding onto hope.
Irena Gawka called her parents via WhatsApp on 24 February 2022. It was a very normal call but her father noticed that she was looking a lot more tired than usual. "Make sure you drink hot milk and relax," her dad said from his living room in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, he said, according to CNN.
Gawka had been in the US for about three years, but about a month after that video call, her family reported her missing. Little did they know that she was living in Gillette, Wyoming with a man she met on the Craigslist forum when she last called them.
Her father, Francis Kambo, who lives 9,000 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya said in a telephonic interview, "She was supposed to come home for Christmas this year. I was going to buy that ticket myself for her to come if she couldn't afford it. Now I don't know if I'll ever see her again."
"She's always been a daddy's girl," he added.
Somehow, they figured something was wrong because of the kind of messages that she sent. Her father became concerned after she did not reply to frequent video conversations in late February. This was uncommon as she spoke to her parents almost every other day. Her written messages also seemed strange, according to her family.
Instead of her usual blend of Swahili and Kenyan slang, the texts were in awkward English, as if someone had used Google Translate to deliver them, according to Wainaina, her oldest brother.
"Dad, I dropped my phone in the water and now the microphone doesn't work," one message said. Another said, "I just want you to know I love and miss you and mom."
"We miss you ... we want to see you, not just chat on WhatsApp," her father responded. "We love you always. You will ... be my daughter forever."
Gakwa moved to the United States from Kenya to study nursing, reports Atlanta Blackstar. Her parents were concerned about how she would adjust to life there because she was shy and introverted before leaving home. She originally resided in Meridian with one of her elder brothers, Chris Munga, and his wife, Gyoice Abatey.
However, she relocated to Gillette in the summer of 2021 to live with her partner, Nathan Hightman, 39, an unemployed computer professional whom she met in 2020.
Abatey, who is close to Gakwa, shared that the missing woman informed her about Hightman in 2020 but never revealed the details of their connection. The pair was frequently on and off, so her relatives assumed they had split. They were completely in the dark about the fact that she was staying with the man until she went missing.
Her father stated that the last WhatsApp message he received was on March 9, 2022. According to an affidavit of probable cause in a separate criminal case against her boyfriend, her brothers reported her missing to the Gillette Police Department on March 20, 2022, and an officer spoke with Hightman the same day.
According to the affidavit, Hightman informed the officer that he last saw Gakwa in late February, when she came home one night, packed her things in two plastic bags, and departed in a dark-colored SUV. He informed the police he hadn't heard from her in a long time. He further stated that he had withdrawn funds from her bank account, forcing her to call him if she needed money.
"We believe he has information pertaining to the disappearance of Irene, but he has elected not to provide that information to law enforcement at this time," Gillette police detective Dan Stroup said.
Hightman has not been charged in Gakwa's disappearance, but he has been charged with financial offenses committed against her after she went missing. Meanwhile, Gakwa's two brothers and sister-in-law have been driving from Meridian to Gillette several weekends a month to arrange search parties. The entire community is helping out in the search for the missing woman.
They've even launched a website, whereisirene.com, hoping to find Gakwa.
While Gakwa's mom is too emotional to even talk, her dad is still holding onto hope. "She was my only daughter. I spoiled her and she took advantage of that," he said. "She had not introduced Nathan to me -- that's what kills me."
Some days, he's optimistic she'll make it home for Christmas. But most days, not so much. "I just want to know the truth. I'm still hopeful, but my hope is dwindling. She knows my number," he added.
"The fact that she has not called ..." he trailed off.
Cover Image Source: Facebook | Find Irene Gakwa