Piano Man feared 'coming out', says school friend

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The Independent Online

Andreas Grassl, 20, whose identity remained a mystery for four months after he was found on a beach in Sheerness, Kent, left his family in Bavaria last year because he feared revealing that he was gay.

His anguish was recounted yesterday by a former classmate as a picture began to emerge of the recent state of mind of Mr Grassl, who remains in hiding after returning to Germany at the weekend from a hospital in Dartford, where he was treated for an apparent nervous breakdown until he broke his silence on Friday.

"He told me that he was gay but he hadn't come out because in this area you can't really do that - people don't accept it," said Dana Shano, 20, one of those pictured in the photograph published yesterday of class 11b at the Robert Schumann Gymnasium, or grammar school.

"That's why he went away because he found dealing with his sexuality difficult. He was a bit of an outsider but he had a small group of friends - a couple of girls and a couple of guys. But I'm not aware whether he had a partner," she said.

"I was part of his group and we were a bit different from the rest of them. We didn't talk about the normal things that people from the country do."

His interests were high-brow compared to many, she said. He wrote for the local Bayer Wald Echo newspaper about film, pop music and youth issues, including a piece about flirting, and hoped a recent internship at the respected Bayern 3 radio station would launch his journalism career.

"He was a good friend of mine. He had different interests and there was something a bit special about him. His parents didn't really understand him - I don't know if they thought he was gay. Neither his parents nor his two sisters really understood him. He spoke very little about his family. When he was identified it was a big shock, I didn't think he would do something like that. I didn't recognise him immediately [from the picture] because he had put on weight and his skin, which used to be spotty, had cleared up."

According to Sebastian Neumayer, who had known Mr Grassl since the age of 10, he had become a nuisance to some teachers despite being an intelligent student. "He would insult teachers and make jokes about them. He had favourite teachers but if he didn't like them he would insult them." According to another friend it was "without a goodbye or a single comment" that Grassl left his grammar school in the nearby town of Cham in May last year, to begin a nine-month stint of community service - an alternative to military service - working with the disabled in Saarbrücken, western Germany.

At the end of March this year, he moved to France and his whereabouts was not known to his parents until last week. His parents, who reported their son missing to French police, then read about the Piano Man but it had not occurred to them who he might be, their lawyer said.

"There were pictures in the regional papers but not the local ones and the family were aware of the Piano Man but had not seen a picture. When they were shown the picture eventually they saw no similarity - he had no glasses and his hair was different" said Christian Baumann.

He dismissed claims that Mr Grassl, who earnt his nickname by playing piano while in care, was talentless in that respect. "It's not true that he can't play the piano. He can and he is largely self-taught on a keyboard at home although he is no virtuoso," Mr Baumann said.

Yesterday, Mr Grassl's father Joseph could be seen running errands around his farm in the gently sloping hills of Posdorf and popping over the border to buy petrol in the Czech Republic while his wife Christa continued with her housework, occasionally appearing in the garden of their home, a three-storey chalet.

It is thought that their only son, one of three children, remained indoors and has agreed to answer 10 e-mailed questions submitted by the assembled British media, who were in the town last night.