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A mother's nightmare: Son missing in Austria

Aeryn Gillern / photo courtesy URSARTEAM

Everything was in its place at Aeryn Gillern's apartment. His clothes were still in the washing machine where he'd tucked them before running off to work. Rice Krispie treats he'd baked for co-workers still sat on the counter, forgotten in the morning's haste.

But entering her son's Vienna apartment was the start of a nightmare that has devoured Kathy Gilleran's life: Thirty-four-year-old Aeryn Gillern vanished Oct. 29 ago while working as a research clerk in Austria for the United Nation's Industrial Development Organization.

"A part of me wanted to believe that he was going to meet me at the airport or he was just going to surprise me when I showed up at his apartment," said Gilleran, a 56-year-old retired Ithaca, N.Y. police officer. "The other part of me knew going into that room I was entering the worst part of my life."

Kathy Gilleran doesn't know what happened to her son - who was openly gay; a first runner-up in the 2006 Mr. Gay Universe competition. What has made the unbearable worse, she said, is how she was treated by Vienna police.

During six weeks of frantic searching in Vienna last fall, Gilleran said she was met with stonewalling, rudeness, lies and discrimination by police, who after a grudging investigation into her son's disappearance concluded the successful, scholarly, well-liked and deeply religious man committed "spontaneous suicide" by jumping into the Danube Canal.

"I told them I was a police officer in the United States. Cops usually take care of each other," said Gilleran, her eyes a constant red from crying and fitful nights. "I said my son is missing. Help me find him."

Gilleran said Vienna authorities have not returned any correspondence or e-mails since early December.

The last contact she had came in May when they responded to inquiries by Susan Fitch of the U.S. Office of American Citizen Services. The correspondence said Vienna police had conducted an investigation and that Aeryn's case and his DNA file would be added into Interpol and police databases as a missing person case, with special attention to Slovakia and Hungary.

The report concluded by saying there was no further information expected in the case.

Government officials said they could not talk about the specifics of the case.

The American government has no authority to compel another sovereign country to investigate a missing person case nor the jurisdiction to carry out such an investigation on its own, said Cy Ferenchak, a state department spokesman.

"What we can say in general terms, in cases involving U.S. citizens, our embassy experience is that we find Austria's police consistently professional, cooperative and responsive," said Katherine Perez, the U.S. Embassy's acting spokeswoman in Vienna.

Armin Halm, a spokesman for Austria's federal criminal investigations bureau, said authorities have done, and continue to do, all they can. He said the search for Gillern - who uses the westernized spelling of his mother's maiden name - was ongoing but that currently there was "nothing tangible" to pursue.

"A large number of people were questioned," Halm said, adding that police also reconstructed how Gillern lived and checked with whom he socialized, among other things. "We did everything we could possibly do."

Vienna Police Lt. Col. Gerhard Haimeder also defended his agency's work.

"No shortfalls whatsoever were determined; all necessary measures were taken within the scope of what was legally possible," Haimeder wrote in an e-mail. "I have nothing more to say about this case. Our officers did their work, there are no shortfalls," he said.

Haimeder said Vienna police understand the mother's agony but added that he wouldn't comment on what police consider to be "baseless reproaches."

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Aeryn Gillern grew up in small towns in upstate New York - Elmira, Ithaca and finally, Groton, a one-time farming village of 2,500 that now serves as bedroom community for Cornell University and Ithaca College. The 6-foot-2 Gillern enjoyed bicycling, roller-blading, running and lifting weights.

Co-workers in Vienna described Gillern as a hardworking team player, gentle, charming, fitness-conscious and a person who loved to bake. Friends remembered a person with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He graduated from Franciscan University in 1997 with a degree in theology and added a master's in 1999, his mother said. He also earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology at Webster University while living in Vienna for the past six years.

Despite his homosexuality, Gilleran said her son was a dutiful Catholic, who carried a rosary on his belt and a small, well-used prayer book - held together by a rubber band - in his back pocket. Aeryn studied for 18 months at a seminary in Graz and helped serve Mass at three Catholic churches in Vienna.

Photographs of him cover an end table near the front door of her home in Cortland, 30 miles south of Syracuse. Near the fireplace is a display case full of his possessions: a Groton High School athletics letter, a pair of Easter Eggs and a pewter crucifix he wore on a loop around his belt.

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Co-workers last saw Gillern on Monday, Oct. 29, about 6:15 p.m. when he left work. He had hosted his partner for the weekend and dropped him off at the train station to start the day, Gilleran learned.

When he failed to show up for work the next two days, Gillern's partner and his upstairs neighbor went to the police to file a missing person report. They were told that Austrian police were not required to take missing persons reports on non-citizens and were sent away, Gilleran said.

Not satisfied, UNIDO co-workers contacted the Austrian Foreign Ministry, which directed police to begin an investigation, said Gilleran, who arrived in Vienna on Nov. 2 to begin searching for her son.

During her six-week stay, Gilleran retraced often her son's steps. Friends told her he had gone to the Kaiserbruendl, an upscale gay sauna in the heart of Vienna's high-class Stephansplatz district after work on the 29th. His cell phone showed he spoke with a female friend from 7:20 to 7:30 p.m., said Gilleran.

But Gilleran said she received changing and conflicting accounts from police and from staff at the sauna as she tried to learn her son's fate.

A bouncer told her there had been a fight that night around 10 p.m. caused by a gang of tourists, and that her son had been injured. Others said there was no fight. There was confusion whether police even responded, and Gilleran said a video camera in the sauna's office disappeared during the investigation.

A few days into the probe, police told her a fisherman had called at 8:15 p.m on Oct. 29 to report seeing a bald man fitting Gillern's description floating in the canal, but they continually changed the man's account until it became a vague statement about hearing a possible scream and splash, she said.

Gilleran said one investigator told her police divers and boats scoured the Danube for her son's body the night he disappeared, and teams with dogs had searched the banks. Later, she learned no boats, dogs or divers were ever dispatched.

Gilleran said Vienna police waited three days before they retrieved her son's belongings from the sauna, including his credit cards, cell phone and passport.

At one point, investigators told her Gillern had become despondent after learning he was HIV positive. But Gilleran found a lab report confirming that he had tested negative - in the clothes from the sauna.

"They had his clothes in their possession for a week and they never bothered looking at it. They almost had me thinking, `Well, maybe, he was depressed and maybe he did commit suicide,"' said Gilleran, a divorcee who raised Aeryn and his younger brother, Rahman, on her own.

After several weeks, Gilleran said Vienna police finally issued a news release about her son's disappearance, describing him as an emotionally unbalanced, suicidal homosexual who had fled a sauna wearing only a towel and likely jumped into the Danube in an act of "spontaneous suicide."

Gilleran flatly rejects any notion her son committed suicide, an opinion cemented after she spoke with his friends and co-workers. He had recently registered for classes at Webster to begin work on a third master's degree and had excitedly told friends he was preparing for his mother to come live with him for several months. He bought airline tickets for upcoming trips with his partner to Zurich and Helsinki.

"If you're suicidal, you don't plan for the future," said Gilleran, who last spoke to her son two days before he disappeared.

Gilleran wonders if a complaint her son filed with Amnesty International over alleged mistreatment by the Vienna police in January 2003 had anything to do with how his case was handled.

On Jan. 11, 2003, Gillern was taken into custody by Vienna police after "forgetting" to have his subway ticket stamped and for not having his passport, according to a three-page deposition he filed in the case. Gillern said police punched him, pushed him around, handcuffed him without charging him or advising him of his rights, forcefully took his gym bag and later illegally entered his apartment.

Gillern said one of the officers recognized him because a few weeks earlier he had given police a statement after he stopped a thief from stealing a woman's wallet.

"(The officer) also made the comment that he remembered something about me being gay," Gillern said in his deposition. "At that point, I saw everyone in the room, four officers, turn and look and smirk."

The rough treatment happened after that.

"I can understand being inept," his mother said. "But I can't understand being cruel."

"It would be so much easier for me to say my son was depressed and he hid it from me ... But not knowing, and all the discrepancies ... all the non-caring from the police, has made this impossible to swallow," she said.

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Unable to afford a lawyer or private investigator, Gilleran left Vienna discouraged and physically exhausted.

"I don't know what more I should have done, but I feel I should have done more," she said.

Since returning home, Gilleran has turned for help to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, which has asked OUTfront, the LGBT policy program at Amnesty International USA, to review her son's case, said Steve Ralls, a PFLAG spokesman.

Because of the time she spent in Vienna, she lost her job as director of a local SPCA shelter. Her 92-year-old mother lives by herself 90 minutes away, but Gilleran only telephones her now because she doesn't want to stray too far from home, still waiting for the phone to ring with news about Aeryn. Rahman, who lives in Tennessee, and a small circle of friends have helped Gilleran fight her despair.

She downloaded Aeryn's cell phone voicemail greeting onto her home computer and she's saved a short video clip from his last visit home in September 2007. She has made a rule for herself not to cry during the day, only during the often sleepless nights.

"I'm up against a wall. I just want my son back, that's all. I just want my son back."

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