The Ideal Human Environment (IHE) was a movement started in the early 80s by a Vietnam War veteran named James Salerno. Like most cults, the aims of IHE looked pretty good on paper, until Salerno was accused of sexual assault in 2015.
The 71-year-old man is now at the Adelaide District Court pleading not guilty to charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. And while the trial is yet to reach a verdict, the cult’s inner workings are being revealed.
Between 2001 and 2008 James Salerno ran daily meeting at the group’s Arbury Park mansion in the Adelaide Hills. There, according to prosecutor Patrick Hill, he required that around 30 members of IHE refer to him as “Taipan” and regularly use the phrase “praise Taipan.”
According to ABC court reporter Rebecca Opie, the women at the house were responsible for all cleaning and cooking, while girls as young as 13 were trained to be Salerno's “personal servers.” In his opening address, the prosecutor explained that such personal services included: “caring for his hands and feet by these manicures and pedicures, running him a bath, towel drying him afterwards, brushing his hair, doing his laundry and also by giving him hand and leg massages."
Until now, IHE has mostly managed to avoid media attention, but a fairly comprehensive history of the group appeared in the Australian back in 2015. There, reporter Andrew Burrell explains how Salerno returned from the horrors of the Vietnam War craving spiritual guidance. “I came back from Vietnam and I realised that war is the worst human environment, so I dreamt up, I imagined, the opposite of that,” he said.
The guru-to-be spent his 20s traveling widely and cherry picking philosophical titbits from such varying sources as Hinduism and Australian aboriginal tradition. By the early 80s he’d convinced a crowd of friends, family—and strangers who had answered advertisements placed in Adelaide's newspapers—to partake in an ongoing social experiment. The group moved into a house in Adelaide where they attempted to establish and create the “ideal human environment.”
Basically this meant dividing the group into a group of observers and guinea-pigs. The guinea-pigs were subjected to a range of experimental hierarchies which supposedly mirrored social structures found in the real world, while the group of observers took notes and enforced changes. From this process as set of “laws” emerged and a doctrine was written, solidifying the group’s structure. The group then grew, eventually relocating to Beaudesert in south-east Queensland, before finally to a station in Western Australia's Kimberley.
The article in the Australian highlights some of the weirder social experiments undertaken by IHE over the last 20 years. These includes once giving a chronic gambler $100,000 so the group could witness and understand addiction. Then, only a few years ago, they bought three luxury cars to experiment with luxury car use on the Gold Coast. Among their “findings” was that their $300K Ferrari was popular with men, the $700K Rolls-Royce became the car of choice for older women, and that a $100K Hummer was favoured by no one.
Along the way, Salerno also discovered he had a knack for property investment. He bought and flipped an enormous WA cattle station in the early 90s that has since become a tourist resort. He also acquired the sprawling Arbury Park mansion in the Adelaide Hills, which was the childhood home of former Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer. As mentioned, this home is now the scene of several charges of sexual assault.
In 2011 the group received the ire of the Australian Taxation Office, who had originally granted IHE charity status, but then came to doubt the benevolence of their lavish experiments. They demanded unpaid taxes to the tune of $3.5 million, which the group met with a legal challenge but lost in 2015—the same year James Salerno was accused of sexual assault.
Salerno was formally ordered to stand trial in March last year. His group still continues to this day at their station in the Kimberley.
The trail continues.