August 7, 2008
‘I just want my son home’
C’ville mother seeks answers to son’s 2007 disappearance in Austria
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Kathy Gilleran sits Tuesday in the kitchen of her Cortlandville home with photos of her missing son, Aeryn Gilleran, a United Nations employee who has been missing since Oct. 29, 2007, in Austria.
Kathy Gilleran’s home has become a shrine of sorts to her son, Aeryn. Near the front door, photographs of him cover an end table, and near the fireplace is a display case full of his possessions: a Groton High School athletics letter, a pair of Easter Eggs and the hefty pewter crucifix he wore on a loop around his belt.
Kathy last heard from her son Oct. 27 while he was working in Austria.
At the time, the then-34-year-old Aeryn had recently registered for classes at Webster University in Vienna to begin work on his third master’s degree. He was working with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and he was urging his mother to come live in Austria for a few months.
The following Monday, Oct. 29, Gilleran said, Aeryn took the Vienna subway, the U-Bahn, two stops down from his apartment near the Danube Canal to the United Nations compound, where he worked.
He spoke with friends over the phone several times that day, and at about 6:15 p.m., he left his office and headed back to the U-Bahn. That was the last time anyone at the U.N. offices ever saw him.
“My son’s partner had been in Vienna that weekend,” Kathy Gilleran, a former Ithaca police officer, said Wednesday at her home on Meadow Lane in Cortlandville. “He had left that morning; Aeryn had dropped him off at the airport, and had talked with him several times during the day.”
But when Aeryn’s partner tried to call him that evening, he could not reach him. Aeryn did not show up for work for the next two days, and officials at the U.N. went to the Austrian police to file a missing person report.
“Aeryn had never not shown up for work,” his mother said.
They were informed that Austrian law enforcement was not required to take missing persons reports on non-citizens and were sent away, Gilleran said.
Aeryn’s employers contacted the Austrian Foreign Ministry, she said, and ordered them to begin an investigation.
By this time, Aeryn’s boss had contacted Gilleran at the Cortland County SPCA, where she was working as director. She immediately booked a flight to Vienna, and arrived there Nov. 2, the Friday after Aeryn was reported missing.
For six weeks, Gilleran implored the Austrian police to help find her son, but she said she met with constant stonewalling, rudeness, and even outright lies.
One investigator was particularly dismissive.
“He told me he (Aeryn) was a gay man, so he was obviously emotionally unbalanced, and that he could have committed ‘spontaneous suicide,’” Gilleran said.
But Aeryn Gilleran was anything but suicidal, his mother said. A deeply religious man, he graduated from Franciscan University with a degree in theology in 1997, and had earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology at Webster University.
Working for the United Nations, he had signed up for his third master’s there only weeks before he disappeared, and had bought two round-trip tickets to travel with his partner to Zurich to visit his partner’s family over Christmas, Gilleran said.
She met with Aeryn’s doctor, who had eaten lunch with Aeryn only days before his disappearance. He told Gilleran that there was no way Aeryn was suicidal.
“If you’re suicidal, you don’t plan for the future,” she said.
During her six-week stay in Vienna, Gilleran said she retraced her son’s steps from the evening of Oct. 31. She learned that after work, Aeryn had gone to an upscale gay sauna on the Stephansplatz, in the heart of Vienna’s high-class district. But the stories she got from police and from staff at the sauna conflicted, and in some cases, made no sense at all.
Police, she said, told her a fisherman on the Danube had reported seeing a “bald-headed man” floating in the canal at about 7:20 p.m. Oct. 29. Someone else heard a scream at about that time.
But Aeryn had spoken with a classmate for 10 minutes at that time, from 7:20 to 7:30 p.m., a fact Kathy Gilleran confirmed when police gave her Aeryn’s belongings and looked at the record of calls in his cell phone.
The police report of a fisherman finding a bald man floating in the river eventually became a vague statement about maybe finding a body, and then to just hearing a splash, and then “maybe someone heard a scream around that time, but maybe not.”
She said others reported seeing him at the sauna in Stephansplatz after 8 p.m., and a bouncer there told her there had been a fight that night caused by a gang of tourists, and that someone had been sent to the hospital. Others told her no fight had ever happened, and still others said that a fight had gone on, but the police never responded to calls for help.
One investigator told Gilleran that police divers and boats had scoured the Danube for her son’s body the night he disappeared, and teams with dogs had searched the banks. Later, she learned that no boats, dogs or divers had ever been dispatched.
She found many of Aeryn’s belongings at the sauna, including credit cards and his passport. One staff member told her that after the fight, Aeryn had run from the sauna wearing only a towel. Every night during the six weeks she spent in Vienna, Gilleran stood outside the sauna from 6:50 to 10 p.m., holding a picture of her son. Some regulars said they recognized him, but none could offer any help.
When, weeks after his disappearance, the police issued a news release, she said it portrayed her son as an emotionally unbalanced, suicidal and possibly dangerous homosexual who had probably run out of the sauna and plunged into the Danube about 1,500 feet away, in an act of what they dubbed “spontaneous suicide.”
But nobody called the police to tell them they had seen Aeryn’s supposed flight from the sauna.
“There were no calls,” Gilleran said, “because that didn’t happen.”
Gilleran said she is not sure what happened to Aeryn. She said he had been harassed by the Vienna police before, and that something may have happened at the sauna that was quickly covered up — either by the rowdy tourists or the police.
She finally left Austria after a sympathetic police chief had assured her he would personally do everything he could to help find Aeryn, but as her flight left Vienna, she had more questions than answers.
Later, Gilleran received a letter from the Austrian police Lt. Col. Gerhard Haimeder, dated Dec. 10, which stated simply that Aeryn’s disappearance was under investigation.
Since then, she has heard nothing.
She said her countless phone calls, letters and e-mails to the Austrian police in Vienna have gone unanswered since December.
Haimeder did not respond to an e-mailed request for information sent Wednesday. Gilleran said she went back to work at the SPCA when she returned to Cortland.
“I made this rule for myself that I wasn’t going to cry during the day,” she said. Her work helped her to keep her mind on other things, but when she came home at night, despair kept her awake for hours.
“I would literally just put a towel over my face and just scream,” she said. “When I would wake up, there would be this repeating video loop, of ‘Where’s Aeryn? Where’s Aeryn?’ Sleeping was very difficult. And it’s still that way.”
She brought Aeryn’s possessions she had gotten from the police home with her, including his cell phone.
“I’d call his phone and hear his voice, and I’d leave messages telling him that I loved him and that I’m still trying to find him.”
She recorded his voicemail greeting onto her home computer, where she also has saved a short video clip Aeryn took during his last visit home, in September 2007. It shows Aeryn, a smiling, powerfully built man, holding a tiny brown kitten, which climbs up onto his shoulder.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” she said. Gilleran said she wants to move forward with her life, but that she’s unsure of how.
“Everyone has advice on how to go forward,” she said. “But how do you go forward when you don’t know? I want to see a future, but I have to fight for Aeryn.”
Answers would help, she said, but none are forthcoming.
“I want the truth, and I don’t think I’ll ever have that,” she said. “I want my son home. I just want to bring my son home.”
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