Aug 2, 2019

Inside James Salerno's cult and its quest to create the 'ideal human environment'

PHOTO: James Salerno (left) leaving court in Adelaide. (ABC News)
Claire Campbell, Rebecca Opie and Daniel Keane
ABC Local
August 1, 2019

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A well-established Australian cult that has been operating for about 30 years, and even hosted Prince Harry, is likely to continue in its quest to create the ideal human environment, despite its leader being jailed.

Key points:

  • The cult of James Salerno, known as Taipan to his followers, dates back to the 1980s
  • A former documentary maker filmed the inner workings of the group in 2015
  • He was shocked to hear Salerno had been charged with child sex offences

The group of about 30 members — now based in remote Western Australia — has strong business ties across rural Australia, including a law firm, clothing label and pastoral business.

On Monday [July 29th], its founder and leader James Gino Salerno, a former school teacher and Vietnam veteran, was sentenced to at least eight years in jail for repeatedly sexually abusing a teenage girl within the group.

The victim said Salerno — who insisted on being referred to as "Taipan" — "brainwashed, belittled … violated and damaged" her, and left her feeling like a "piece of meat".

The cult lived in the Adelaide Hills in a house once owned by the family of former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer.

Salerno's children attended prestigious local schools — Cornerstone College and Mercedes College.

The cult eventually relocated to Queensland and later to Western Australia, where it is still based in Kununurra in the Kimberley region.

Documentary filmmaker David Bradbury spent several weeks in Kununurra in 2015, filming the inner workings of the group and interviewing Salerno.

"I was quite shocked when the news came through that James had been arrested and charged with having sex with an underage person," Mr Bradbury said.

He told the ABC the Salerno family was "highly motivated and well-educated" and strongly rejected being referred to as a "cult".

"It seemed to be a pretty normal functioning place there without any underbelly," Mr Bradbury said.

"There was certainly a reverence or a holding James Salerno in a bit of a guru-type position.

"He was wanting to establish a community that was different to how we do things in nuclear and non-nuclear families in Australia."

He said most members of the group worked normal jobs as accountants, lawyers and stockmen, while others would volunteer their labour in exchange for food and board.
Group members own a law firm and clothing company

Some of the group's members own a law firm — Salerno Law — which represents pastoralists, farmers and rural clients around Australia from its offices in Kununurra and the Gold Coast.

"One of the sons had flown … Prince Harry when he came and visited Australia some years ago," Mr Bradbury said.

In 2012, members also helped to form outback clothing company Ringers Western while also running the Salerno Pastoral Company.

"Actually, I think Prince Harry wore some of our clothes when he stayed with us," Salerno's daughter Emma told the Gold Coast Bulletin in March.

"Prince Harry was touring Kununurra in his last Australian visit before getting married and he stayed at our property.

"We kept it very low-key which I think he enjoyed … we took him shooting and riding — he loved it."

But the Royals were not the only ones to come calling on Salerno — the media and MPs also sought his company and counsel.

According to a 2013 South Australian parliamentary report, former Labor MP Lyn Breuer met with the cult leader during a tour of outback communities.

While Ms Breuer was clear that she did not endorse Salerno's teachings, she said he offered "interesting insights into education and psychology".

"Salerno made it his personal quest to discover a safer way for people to resolve their conflicts," she wrote.

Mr Bradbury said twice a week, Salerno's group would hold a meeting called "the wisdom bank" where members could air their grievances and resolve conflicts with the guidance of Salerno.

"They would thrash out issues — a teenager might have a problem with his or her mum or dad, trivial things through to more serious issues," Mr Bradbury said.

"James was brought up with a good work ethic … they were doing some good work with drug rehabilitation."

Mr Bradbury's film never aired, but he said he was able to glean various biographical details.

Documents collated by Ms Breuer showed Salerno was born in Benevento, Italy in 1947 and moved to Australia with his family seven years later.

At the age of 19, he joined the Australian Army and served in the Vietnam War.

Mr Bradbury said it was the trauma of Vietnam that sparked Salerno's interest in creating an "ideal human environment".
Women were submissive to men

After returning from Vietnam, Salerno became a teacher at a remote Aboriginal school and also spent time learning from Pitjantjatjara elders.

"Salerno travelled the world extensively, researching and studying different social systems, cultures and religions," documents stated.

"[He] also gained qualifications in teaching, nursing and naturopathy and acquired skills in psychology and counselling."

Mr Bradbury said that, in Salerno's society, women were submissive to men within the group and his partner, who had accompanied him on his visits, felt restricted in what she could do.

"Like that real old-school, 50s patriarchal-type society, for sure," he said.

"Notwithstanding the fact that James's daughter was a high-flying lawyer in the practice and it didn't seem to me that she was suppressed or not going to speak her mind at all.

"She was very much out there with branding, and cutting the balls off bulls, I filmed her doing that on the property … it wasn't just tokenism, she looked like someone plucked out of one of those country magazines."

Salerno lived in his own house on the property, as did his children, while other couples had their own bedrooms and private living facilities.

Salerno has launched an appeal against his convictions which will be heard in Adelaide's Court of Criminal Appeal in November.

Mr Bradbury said he expected the group would continue without him.

"[Salerno] put his imperator on the group and it came out of his own philosophical and practical observations of human nature and what he's pieced together," Mr Bradbury said.

"[He] had that very much quietly controlling influence on it, the women in particular, and his two sons, they are not nincompoops.

"They're not people who are … mentally deranged at all and they would be quite capable of exploring and continuing what James did."
Creating 'Project Research 2000'

Mr Bradbury is one of several documentary makers and journalists who have taken an interest in Salerno's group over the years.

During the 1990s, about 70 people from Australia and China set up camp on the banks of a waterhole on El Questro station to try and create "the ideal human environment" dubbed "Project Research 2000".

They included Salerno's own family and several other families.

"We've researched and tested some principles over the last 30 years of the ideal human environment," Salerno told ABC reporters who visited the site in 1999.

"I guess the definition … is that it's an environment people would rather live in than any other human environment."

Participants were ranked based on their skills and attributes including humility, business acumen, fitness and compassion.

Initiation also played a big role — with group members, including young children, required to undertake overnight bushwalks in the remote Kimberley alone without food or water.

However, the project did not go exactly to plan.

Two tents were burnt during a bushfire, several people contracted gastro, and others were hospitalised after developing tropical sores.

Several months after the research project began, only half of the group remained.

Around the same time, Salerno's group helped to establish the Ideal Human Environment (IHE) Foundation.
Group returned to Adelaide Hills

Between 2001 and 2008, members of the group — which was registered as a tax-exempt charity — moved to the historic Arbury Park mansion in the Adelaide Hills.

The case against Salerno largely focused on the group's activities when it was based at the 10-hectare property.

The 17-room stone mansion was the childhood home of Alexander Downer and was built by his father, Sir Alexander, in 1935.

The SA Government bought the property in 1964 and it was used by the Education Department as a training centre for teachers prior to being sold to the Salerno family.

Salerno had a large bedroom suite to himself on the second floor of the mansion and other group members lived in dormitory style accommodation called "The Barracks".

"The IHE necessarily required that people live communally and devote their resources, energy and, where appropriate, their earnings to the benefit of the group," Judge Paul Slattery said in his judgement against Salerno in May.

The so-called "wisdom bank" was responsible for making decisions including those concerning the future of the children in the group, often without any parental input.

The court heard women in the group were submissive to men, and girls as young as 13 were taught by older women how to be a "personal server" to their leader and tend to Salerno's needs, including massaging him and running him baths.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Slattery said Salerno groomed his victim and sexually abused her over two-and-a-half years.

Salerno was found guilty of eight counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a child.

"You abused your position of primacy within the group to not only groom and sexually abuse the complainant but to ensure that she was fearful of speaking out about your actions," Judge Slattery said.

Salerno was sentenced to 10 years in prison with a non-parole period of eight years.

The ABC has attempted to contact the Salerno family for a response.

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