Kathy Gilleran is a mother on a mission: To find out the truth about what happened to her son.
Aeryn Gilleran, who was 34 at the time, disappeared in Vienna, in October 2007, while working for the United Nations International Development Organization (UNIDO). Alarmed by the news that her son was missing, Kathy traveled from her home in New York to Austria, in an attempt to work with police in the country, the U.S. State Department and other local and international agencies . . . in short, anyone who could help her find her son.
What Kathy found, instead, was a system that seemed more offended by Aeryn's sexual orientation than they were interested in helping to locate him.
"I spent six weeks [in Vienna], dealing with the Austrian police, who treated me not as a mother in shock and disbelief, but as a vile creature who had the audacity to ask them to help me find my gay son," Kathy wrote in an email to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). "According to the police, since my son was gay, it was obvious that he was emotionally unstable and, thus, must have committed suicide."
In fact, the callous response of local officials made it seem as if they were down-right refusing to take any serious, pro-active steps to find Kathy's son.
Austrian police, she says, told her "that he probably killed himself because he was HIV-positive, or had AIDS." And when - 3 weeks after he initially disappeared - police finally gave a statement to the press, they called Aeryn an "emotionally unbalanced gay man."
Authorities did not, however, interview Kathy, her son's close friends, or any of his co-workers. Nor, she says, did they ever put out a single call for a missing person.
"Austrian law enforcement was not required to take missing persons reports on non-citizens," she was told, and was then sent away.
Her son was last seen, Kathy says, on October 29, 2007, when he left his job at the United Nations. Then, over the next few days, both his mother and his partner tried, unsuccessfully, to reach him. He didn't show up for work for two days, and that's when officials at the U.N. tried to file the missing persons report . . . without success.
Aeryn, who had graduated from Franciscan University with a degree in theology in 1997, and had earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology at Webster University, was anything but the desperate, potentially suicidal young man the police were trying to paint him as in the media. He had recently purchased two round-trip tickets to visit his partner's family for the holidays, and, according to his doctor, "there was no way Aeryan was suicidal." A former Mr. Gay Austria, he had little reason to attempt to flee, harm himself, or simply . . . disappear.
During her trip to Vienna, Kathy was able to eventually piece together what the final few hours of her son's life may have been like.
She knows, for example, that he headed after work to a sauna on the Stephansplatz, in a high-end neighborhood in Vienna. But what happened after that depends on whose version of the story you choose to follow.
Police say witnesses reported seeing someone matching her son's description "floating in the canal" near-by, and that someone else heard a scream at about the same time. That, they said, was around 7:20 in the evening.
Aeryn, however, had been talking with a classmate at 7:30 - a fact confirmed when she checked the call log on his cell phone. And with that discovery, the police report became more vague, and less certain.
She was also told her son was involved in a fight, caused by a gang of tourists, and may have been taken to the local hospital. Then, she heard that no fight ever happened . . . or that maybe it did, but police did not respond to calls for help.
So every night, for six weeks, Kathy Gilleran stood on the street in Vienna, holding a picture of her missing gay son. No one could offer her any help. She left Austria and, on December 10, 2007, was simply told that her son's disappearance was "under investigation." Since then, she has been told nothing else.
Today, she is back home in New York, with no answers, no word and little help from any agency foreign or domestic.
"I made this rule for myself that I wasn't going to cry during the day," she told a reporter with her hometown paper, The Cortland Standard.
The nights are even worse, she says, as sleeping at all has been difficult. "When I would wake up, there would be this repeating video loop of 'Where's Aeryn? Where's Aeryn?,'" she says.
It is a question no one seems to know . . . and that no one seems to want to help find an answer to.
"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."
And until she finds the truth - or finds her son - she says her mission will continue.
"[A]nything you can do would be greatly appreciated," she wrote to me when she found me via email at PFLAG. Even the State Department, she said (pointing to a dismissive email from May 19 of this year in which they effectively say they cannot force another country to pursue an investigation if they choose not to), "seems to have given up."