Francis Gakwa always doted on his daughter Irene, the youngest of his three children.
“We were always very close,” Francis, 64, tells PEOPLE from Nairobi, Kenya, about the 33-year-old nursing student he called “my Irene.”
“I did spoil her,” Francis, a retired aeronautical engineer, adds.
In 2019, after living with her parents in her native Nairobi for years, Irene, then 30, decided to move to Boise, Idaho, where her older brothers live, to go to school.
“I kept telling her, ‘You can study here [in Nairobi],'” Francis recalls.
She headed to the U.S., but they made staying in touch a priority. “We used to talk on WhatsApp all the time,” says Francis.
But Francis has been in agony since Feb. 24, the last time he and Irene’s mother, Joyce, spoke to her.
“We can hardly sleep and when we sleep, we keep waking up and it’s like dreaming,” Francis says, breaking down into tears.
Since March, police and volunteer search parties have looked for Irene in Gillette, Wyo., where she’d moved in 2021, but have found no sign of the sweet, shy woman.
Not knowing where she is “is unbearable,” says Francis.
On May 11, Gillette police announced that they’d arrested Irene’s boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, 39, and charged him with two counts of felony theft, two counts of crimes against intellectual property and unlawful use of a credit card.
He allegedly deleted an email account of Irene’s, transferred nearly $3,700 out of her bank account and used her credit card after she vanished.
Though authorities have called Hightman “a person of interest” in Irene’s missing person case, he has not been charged in her disappearance.
He pleaded not guilty and is out on $10,000 bail, awaiting trial. Hightman and his public defender did not respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.
In a statement in May, Gillette police said they were “requesting information regarding the possibility of a 55-gallon metal drum, which may have been burned or abandoned within the county.”
‘He Started Isolating Us From Our Sister’
When Irene moved to Boise, she spent a lot of time with her brothers, Kennedy Wainaina, 44, and Chris Gakwa, 38, as well as her nieces and nephews.
In 2020, she began dating Hightman after meeting him online.
“He seemed quiet,” Kennedy recalls. “Didn’t say much. He told me he doesn’t really have any friends.”
Hightman and Irene began showing up less and less to family functions. Calling Hightman “controlling,” Kennedy alleges, “He started isolating us from our sister.”
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In early March, after about two weeks of receiving strangely worded text message purportedly from Irene, the family determined through family phone plan records that the couple had moved to Gillette — without telling her brothers.
They called police.
“Nate told them Irene … took a couple of trash bags with her and got into a dark SUV and left,” says Kennedy.
“All her social media was deleted,” he says. “Her friends hadn’t heard from her. All of us were freaking out.”
As police investigate, her worried family waits for answers.
A GoFundMe has been set up for a reward leading to information about Irene’s whereabouts.
Anyone with information related to Gakwa’s disappearance is asked to contact the Gillette Police Department at 307-682-5155.