Hightman pleads guilty to three felonies, jailed until sentencing

GILLETTE — Nathan J. Hightman will await his sentencing hearing from jail after pleading guilty to three of the five felonies accusing him of financial crimes against his fiancé, Irene Gakwa, who has been missing from Gillette since last February.

Hightman, 39, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to felony counts of theft, unlawful use of a credit card and crimes against intellectual property for taking $3,666.46 from Gakwa’s bank account, charging $3,230.65 to two of her credit cards and deleting her Gmail account without permission.

District Judge James M. “Mike” Causey accepted the pleas and dismissed an additional count of theft and of crimes against intellectual property, per the plea negotiations.

In exchange for Hightman’s cold pleas, he and his defense attorney, Dallas Lamb, and County Attorney Nathan Henkes, the prosecutor on the case, can argue for any sentencing up to the maximum allowed for each count.

The maximum sentence for each of the theft and unlawful use of a credit card convictions is up to 10 years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both. The maximum for the crimes against intellectual property count he was convicted on is three years in prison and/or a $3,000 fine.

Collectively, Hightman could face up to 23 years in prison and $23,000 in fines at his sentencing hearing, which typically occurs within 75-90 days from the change of plea.

Hightman’s bond was lifted at the change of plea hearing Tuesday after arguments from Lamb and Henkes, putting Hightman in jail until his sentencing date, which has not been scheduled yet.

He had been out on $10,000 cash or commercial surety bond since his May preliminary hearing in Circuit Court. He was handcuffed by two bailiffs and escorted from the back of the courtroom once the hearing ended Tuesday.

Henkes said during the hearing that the two sides agreed to recommend that Hightman pay $3,666.46 in restitution for taking money from Gakwa’s bank account and $3,230.65 in restitution for the credit card charges.

Gakwa was last heard from on a video call with family on Feb. 25, 2022. The crimes Hightman pleaded guilty to occurred between Feb. 26 and March 19 of the same year. The investigation into Gakwa’s disappearance began a day later, March 20.

Hightman has been named a person of interest in the police investigation into Gakwa’s disappearance but has not been charged in connection to it.

The investigation into her disappearance is ongoing.

The change of plea removes the need for the 10-day trial that was scheduled to begin April 3.

In addition to the restitution owed, other court fees and fines may apply and be determined at sentencing.

While establishing the facts of the theft conviction, Hightman admitted to accessing Gakwa’s Idaho Central Credit Union bank account without her permission and removing her money through multiple transactions.

Causey followed up to clarify if his intent was to deprive Gakwa of the money.

“I wanted her to contact me, so yes,” Hightman said.

For the unlawful use of a credit card conviction, he admitted to making purchases with two of Gakwa’s credit cards. He said that “most if not all” transactions were made in Campbell County. During the questioning, he was asked if he had permission to use those credit cards.

“As stated before, I wasn’t in direct contact with her, so no,” Hightman said.

As for the facts of the crimes against intellectual property conviction, Hightman admitted to accessing and deleting Gakwa’s Gmail account, and reiterated that he had not been in direct contact with her, so he did not have her permission to do so.

Causey accepted his three guilty pleas and ordered a pre-sentence investigation report in advance of the sentencing hearing.

When considering what to do with Hightman’s bond, the main questions were of whether he was a flight risk or a danger to the community.

Lamb argued that Hightman had been granted a $10,000 cash or commercial surety bond in May and remained out on bond without fleeing or violating his conditions for the time since then. Lamb said that although Hightman “does not have ties to the community, he was a recent transplant,” that he showed over the course of his bond that he was not a risk to flee.

“These were financial crimes directed to that one person in particular,” Lamb said.

He said that Hightman has proven since May to have stayed within his bond conditions and that even if there was concern, “it would be foolhardy” to commit a violation when his sentencing is still undetermined, with maximum penalties in play.

Lamb asked to continue Hightman’s bond conditions as they were.

Henkes said that the presumption of innocence had been lifted and convictions made, and raised the question of Hightman’s job status as a reason to keep him detained until sentencing.

“I don’t know that Mr. Hightman has any employment,” he said.

If Hightman was to stay out on bond, Henkes asked that his passport and other documents that could allow him to travel be held by the court.

“He’s had ample time to get out of Dodge … he’s had ample reason,” Lamb said, citing the attention Hightman’s case has received. He also said that Hightman’s passport is his only form of ID, and that if it was taken, the court would have to “figure something out there.”

Lamb declined comment to the News Record while leaving the courtroom. Henkes declined comment to the News Record earlier Tuesday morning.