The investigation into the disappearance of Irene Gakwa took a turn this week when police arrested her fiancé, Nathan Jason Hightman, for five felony charges related to money he was accused of stealing from Gakwa’s credit card and bank account.
The warrant for Hightman’s arrest was signed May 6 and police arrested him on Tuesday. Hightman was charged with two counts of felony theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property and unlawful use of a credit card.
Gakwa was reported missing by out-of-town family on March 20. They had last heard from her on Feb. 24. Gakwa, originally from Kenya, met Hightman in Boise, Idaho before moving to Gillette last summer, according to Gakwa’s brothers, who live in Boise.
“Until we know what he knows, the truth about where Irene is or what happened to Irene, we’re still not satisfied,” said Gakwa’s brother, Kennedy Wainaina.
On Wednesday, Hightman, 38, made his initial appearance in Circuit Court where Judge Paul S. Phillips set Hightman’s bond at $10,000 and scheduled a preliminary hearing for May 19.
The prosecution asked for a $250,000 bond, citing Hightman’s lack of ties to the community and the “serious crimes” he has been charged with.
Hightman’s defense attorney, Steven Titus, requested a $5,000 bond, arguing that the charges against Hightman were non-violent and unrelated to the disappearance of Gakwa.
“They could have easily charged him with a crime in the last two or three months and they haven’t,” Titus told the News Record. “Essentially, law enforcement, I don’t think, has the probable cause to charge Mr. Hightman with a crime related to anything dealing with the disappearance of Ms. Gakwa.”
The Gillette Police Department announced the arrest Wednesday afternoon, after Hightman’s initial appearance. Police said Gakwa went missing under “suspicious circumstances” and that Hightman has declined interview requests regarding her disappearance, according to the press release.
The investigation is ongoing and police have asked the public for information on a gray or silver Subaru Crosstrek with Idaho license plates that may have been seen trespassing on private property or in rural parts of Campbell County between Feb. 24 and March 20.
A 55-gallon drum may have been burned or abandoned within the county, and police are asking the public for any information on that.
The two theft charges stemmed from transferring $3,666.46 combined dollars from Gakwa’s bank account to a digital payment account owned by Hightman over multiple transactions, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
He was charged with unlawful use of a credit card because of $3,230.65 in purchases he was accused of making.
Police also suspect Hightman of changing the password on Gakwa’s bank account and deleting her Gmail account, leading to the two counts of crimes against intellectual property.
“He deactivated her email account, why would you do that? Why would you take somebody’s money from a checking account?” Wainaina said. “Why would you max somebody’s credit card? He obviously knows more than he’s saying.”
Building a case
The investigation into Gakwa’s disappearance began on March 20 when her family reported her missing. Her family said they lost all contact with her around Feb. 24. Gakwa had been living with Hightman, her fiancé, in Gillette at the time.
When contacted in late March, Hightman told police Gakwa had moved out of the home around the end of February. He said she came home from a restaurant, packed her clothes into two plastic bags and said she was leaving Gillette.
He told police she left in a dark-colored SUV and that he had not heard from her since, according to the affidavit of probable cause in the case.
Officers sought numerous search warrants during the investigation, two of which were to the Idaho Central Credit Union and Capital One Visa. Another warrant was for Gakwa’s Gmail account and location information, according to the affidavit.
Based on the warrants, police concluded that Hightman had stolen money, changed Gakwa’s banking password, used her credit card without permission and deleted her Google account.
Hightman told police he accessed and withdrew money from her bank account to force her to contact him when she eventually needed money, but she had not reached out to him, according to the affidavit.
Police found a checking account, savings account and credit card belonging to Gakwa and held with the Idaho credit union the warrant was sought for.
The checking account — which Hightman was not authorized to use — had eight separate transactions that occurred from Feb. 25 through March and sent money from Gakwa’s checking account to Hightman’s Zelle account, used for electronic money transfers.
Two of those transfers made in February totaled $1,000. The six other transactions, made in March, totaled $2,666.46. The investigation found that the account password changed on Feb. 25, according to the affidavit.
The password change and transactions that followed were all tied to one electronic device with an IP address that belonged to Hightman.
Police concluded that Hightman accessed Gakwa’s account, took the money and changed the password, according to the affidavit.
The investigation also found 16 credit card transactions totaling $604.65 made using Gakwa’s card after Feb. 24 when she was last heard from by family.
The first of those was used to buy a shovel, a pair of boots and pants from Walmart. Video from the store showed Hightman buy those items and the boots and shovel were found inside of his home, according to the affidavit.
A search warrant for Capital One found 40 more credit card charges made after Gakwa was believed to have disappeared. Thirteen of those credit card transactions for $804.60 were made from Feb. 25-28, marking “substantially” more activity on the card than in its prior use, according to the affidavit.
From March 1 through March 19, the card was used 27 more times for another $2,426 in charges.
Ten transactions were linked to Hightman’s IP address and none were linked to use by Gakwa’s phone. The other 30 charges were made in person and stopped once the card reached its $3,100 limit.
Police also learned that her Gmail address has been used only on Hightman’s IP address and was deleted from that device March 10.
On Wednesday, Titus said he had not had time to talk with Hightman at length about the five felony charges and that his client has consistently said he had nothing to do with Gakwa’s disappearance. He said police don’t have enough probable cause to charge Hightman for the disappearance, which brought on the five non-violent charges.
“Frankly, in my mind, they’re just trying to provoke him to do something that could lead them to more evidence if he did something wrong,” Titus said.
For Gakwa’s family, the arrest came as a bittersweet development in the case, Wainaina said, but the bigger question of what happened to his sister remains.
“The evidence and everything that happened leads you back to Nate,” Wainaina said. “I wish he could just tell us what happened or what he knows. Even if he’s claiming he’s innocent, at least tell us what you know, and at least tell us the truth and we can go from there.”
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