Kathy Gillern's son Aeryn disappeared in Vienna on October 29, 2007. The Vienna police say they have done their best to find him, but have they?
A mother in Cortland, New York is still trying to find out what happened to her son, who disappeared nearly a year ago in Vienna, Austria, but she isn't getting much help from Viennese authorities.
At the time of his disappearance, Aeryn Gillern was 34 and employed as a research clerk by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), a UN specialized agency headquartered in Vienna, Austria. He had been living in Austria for the past six years. He was scholarly, well-liked by his coworkers, a deeply religious Catholic who had studied theology and earned a masters degree, and winner of the title "Mr. Gay Austria" in 2006. When Aeryn Gillern vanished on October 29, 2007, there were clothes left in the washer in his apartment and freshly baked Rice Krispies treats on the kitchen counter. When he didn't show up at work for two days, concerned a concerned neighbor and a coworker notified authorities. But the official investigation of Aeryn Gillern's disappearance has gone nowhere.
Areyn Gillern's last telephone contact was a cell-phone conversation with a female friend at about 7:30 pm on October 29, 2007. He is believed to have visited the Kaiserbruendl, a gay sauna in Vienna, later that evening. An employee at the spa told Mrs. Gillern that a group of tourists started a fight in the upscale sauna at around 10 pm on the night Aeryn disappeared. His clothes and personal belongings were left behind at the sauna, but Aeryn vanished, never to be seen again. A video camera belonging to the sauna has also disappeared. According to Mrs. Gillern, police reported to her a few days after Aeryn's disappearance that a bald-headed man had been seen floating in a canal. Later, the story changed. Police have also suggested that Aeryn was "despondent" after learning he was HIV-positive and committed "an act of spontaneous suicide." However, a lab report of the missing man's clothes showed that he was not HIV positive.
Kathy Gillern, a former Ithaca police officer, has urged the Vienna police to press the investigation in a more aggressive manner, but they have refused. Mrs. Gillern wonders whether this may be because the openly gay Gillern had a run-in with the Viennese police in January 2003 and may have made a complaint about it to Amnesty International. Austrian federal criminal investigations bureau spokeman Armin Halm says that the police have done all they can, and an American state department spokesman, Cy Ferenchak, stated that American authorities have no power to intervene in an investigation in a foreign country. A high-ranking official in the Vienna Police wrote in an email: “No shortfalls whatsoever were determined; all necessary measures were taken within the scope of what was legally possible. I have nothing more to say about this case. Our officers did their work; there are no shortfalls.”
The record thus far suggests that the Vienna police investigation was slipshod at best, and the cover-up of a hate crime at worst. The characterization of Aeryn Gillern as a suicide-prone, HIV-positive man who "spontaneously" threw himself into a canal sounds like an excuse not to pursue the investigation because the victim was gay. The homophobia is barely concealed, and the unwillingness to dig deeper into the case is suspicious. Officially, the investigation is proceeding, but nothing is being done. If Gillern went into a canal, on his own or with help, where is his body? What measures have the Vienna Police taken to locate the alleged corpse, including contacting the police of neighboring countries? Why is the disappearance of a properly documented foreign employee of a UN agency in Vienna being swept under the rug as if he were a foreign sex-tourist who got what he deserved? And why is the U.S. government, which intervenes in the affairs of foreign countries routinely, doing nothing to pressure Austrian authorities to probe deeper?
Anyone who cares about basic human rights should be outraged about how the Aeryn Gillern case has been treated by both Austrian and American authorities. I hope that Mrs. Gillern asks New York's senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, to exert pressure on the U.S. State Department to pursue this case vigorously.