Earlier this year, VICE reported on an Australian cult known as the “Ideal Human Environment”. The cult was started in the early 80s by a Vietnam War veteran named James Salerno—or “Taipan”, as he insisted on being called—who ran daily meetings at the group’s Arbury Park mansion in the Adelaide Hills between 2001 and 2008.
Salerno, now 71, recently stood trial in the Adelaide District Court and pleaded not guilty to nine counts of unlawful sexual intercourse. Among his alleged victims is a former member of the group who claims to have been sexually assaulted by Salerno when she was just 13.
Now a raft of new details surrounding the case and the cult have come to light, as revealed within the complainant’s evidence and subsequently obtained by the ABC. Among them: that Salerno convinced his followers he was an omnipotent god; that he made them dress in all white garb; and that he insisted they salute him like Russell Crowe’s character from Gladiator.
The complainant explained to the court that after a group viewing of Gladiator Salerno decided to introduce a new form of salutation, as inspired by Marcus Aurelius in the film. Every time he entered a room the group’s members were expected to stand to attention, place their right arm over their shoulder and say “Strength and honour”, just like Russell Crowe’s character.
"This was decided after the group had watched the movie Gladiator as a sign of respect and power," the complainant said.
"Taipan was a person that we were made to believe to be feared… he was God, he was someone that would bring down hell upon you. It was a lot of talking about how great Taipan was and how he was put on this Earth as God's gift and how we should all honour that. We would often wear white clothes because that was like a pure energy and we were often told we were there to serve Taipan.”
The complainant also claimed that Salerno selected a group of females to perform “healings” and massages on him, and that she was taught how to cut his nails, run his baths, and pick his fruit.
"Taipan only had the best of everything," she said. "He only had the best food… his nectarines couldn't be too soft or too hard."
The defence argued against many of these claims in court, with David Edwardson QC labelling them “a pack of lies”.
“The whole story that you've told this court about having sex with James Salerno is an absolute fabrication," he said. "I would suggest to you that you were never required to look after him in that way. That never happened at all—it is a figment of your imagination."
Prosecutor Patrick Hill has previously alleged that Salerno authored a 51-page “bible” for the cult, that he prompted his followers to frequently utter the words "praise Taipan", and that he established a strict ranking system where members of the group were classed according to their “emotional quotient”, The Advertiser reported.
"We thought if we could... give everybody a rank structure, it would actually create harmony,” Salerno said during his evidence. He also denied that he was the leader of the Ideal Human Environment, however, claiming that he was "just the person who kept people going".
It is expected that a verdict on the case will be handed down in February.