Without a trace: Mystery of Stella Kurgat disappearance persists 6 years on

Six years on, family of missing student hopes for her return

When she stepped out of her room that bright Sunday morning, ostensibly to visit her boyfriend, there was no indication that it would lead to an agonising search for her by her family in Bomet County.

Stella Chepkoech Kurgat, then a second-year clinical medicine student at Kisii University, bid farewell to her elder sister, Lornah Cherono Kurgat, at their shared house in Green Light Estate, Kisii town, on September 23, 2017.

Stella reportedly told her friends that she was going to Kisumu to visit her boyfriend, promising to return the next day.

But hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months and months into six years.

Family members painted the picture of a 25-year-old student who loved the finer things in life: She was obsessed with the lives of celebrities, loved money, and, before her disappearance, had immersed herself in social media to the extent that she missed some of her lectures.

Ms Florence Kurgat, her mother, who is a teacher at Kipketii Primary School in Kipsonoi sub-county, Bomet County, said she had been to hell and back looking for her daughter.

An unsuccessful attempt was made to defraud the family of Sh700,000 by fake kidnappers. The family also lost Sh11,180 to a man claiming to be a former police spokesman.

Florence Kurgat

Florence Kurgat, mother of Stella Cherono Kurgat, a Kisii University student who has been missing for the last 6 years in this photo taken on May 29, 2023 at her home in Kipketii village, Bomet County.

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

Ms Kurgat recently toyed with the idea of travelling to Shakahola Forest in Kilifi County, which has been declared a crime scene, to see if Stella is among the more than 200 unclaimed bodies dug up in an ongoing operation linked to criminal activities involving disgraced cultic pastor Paul Mackenzie.

“She was supposed to join her classmates at the university library to study as usual, but she never showed up, causing alarm among her classmates who called her sister in the evening to inquire about her whereabouts," Ms Kurgat, a widow, said in an interview.

A day after Stella's disappearance, her mother, who was doing household chores in Bomet, was informed of the news, triggering a search that has so far proved fruitless.

Stella's father, David Kiplangat Kurgat, a former public health officer in Kericho County, died in 1999.

"When news of her disappearance broke, I travelled to Kisii, where I found her classmates recording statements with the police. Since then, I have been to the police station several times but nothing has come out of the investigation by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI)," Ms Kurgat lamented.

She has also reported the matter to the Bomet Police Station, but there has been no breakthrough in the investigation.

Before joining the university, Stella attended Tengecha Primary School in Bureti Constituency, Kericho County, where she wrote the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam and joined Kesup Girls Secondary School in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

Ms Kurgat has photos shared online by family members to remember her third-born daughter.

Mr Godwin Kipkoech, Stella's younger brother, revealed that she kept a lot to herself but it dawned on the family that she had money from unknown sources.

"She used to have a lot of money … she once had Sh200,000 whose source I did not understand. But she claimed that there were people she was involved with who were sending her money," said Mr Kipkoech.

"She was quiet and very secretive but underneath was a girl who loved the finer things in life and was consumed by celebrity status … she was a party girl," Mr Kipkoech said.

He had learnt that Stella was missing lectures and would take her laptop to hotels in Kisii town that had free internet services, where she would bury herself in the internet for hours.

"If anyone is responsible for her disappearance, I can assure you that it is the boyfriend she went to meet in Kisumu. He is the one who knows whether she is alive or dead," he said.

The family was told that her phone's signal was last recorded in Kisumu on September 25, 2017 — two days after her disappearance — when a mobile money transaction was made at a supermarket.

Later, a man claiming to be a former police spokesperson demanded a bribe to speed up the search and location of the missing student.

"In desperation, I sent the man a total of Sh11,180 in three tranches of Sh4,080, Sh5,100 and Sh2,000," said Ms Kurgat, providing the phone number where the money was sent.

The money was sent on November 1 and 2, 2017, two months after Stella went missing.

"It was only later that we realised the man was a fraudster and although his name was indeed registered as (redacted) and the phone numbers were almost similar to those of the senior officer, he was not the police spokesperson," Ms Kurgat said.

Another man contacted the family through social media, asking for a ransom to release Stella, claiming she had been kidnapped.

"Hi nonny, send me your phone number so that you know where your sister Steller shanks is, she left her uncle's house in Kisumu on the 28th of September 2017 when she was going to Kisii University and she did not reach. She was kidnapped and for you to get her, tell her uncle to send us Sh700,000 (sic)," read the message sent to Stella's sister Cherono via social media by a man who signed as Robert Nyaundi.

But the family, smarting from being defrauded earlier, did not bother to follow up, because all indications were that they were dealing with another fraudster.

The family has also received phone calls from numbers with hidden caller IDs claiming to know Stella’s whereabouts, but pointing out that they are all part of the Nyaundi team.

Unlike other families with missing relatives, Stella's family has not searched for her at any mortuary.

Florence Kurgat

Florence Kurgat, mother of Stella Cherono, the Kisii University student who has been missing for the last 6 years, with her son Godwin Kipkoech in this photo taken on May 29, 2023 at her home at Kipketii village, Bomet County.

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

"I have been asked repeatedly to visit the various mortuaries and check if one of the unclaimed bodies is my daughter's, but I could not bring myself to do so. I don't have the courage to go through the corpses looking for my daughter. Besides, I believe she is out there somewhere, alive, and will one day return to the family," said Ms Kurgat.

"But lately, I have been toying with the idea of travelling to the Coast region to check the bodies unearthed from the ongoing operations at Shakahola, but I have been dissuaded by family members who have strongly indicated that my missing daughter was not a religious fanatic," Ms Kurgat said.

Towards the end of the interview, Ms Kurgat was unable to hold back her tears.

"It is so painful that a child who never lacked anything, who I sacrificed a lot to educate and provide for, has just disappeared without a trace. It is only a parent, a mother, who can feel and understand the pain I have experienced," she said.