Salute to Adelaide Hills cult leader inspired by Gladiator movie, court told

ABC News, Australia/October 19, 2018

By Rebecca Opie

Members of a cult once based in an Adelaide Hills mansion dressed in white clothes and would say "strength and honour" when their leader "Taipan" entered a room, the District Court has heard.

James Gino Salerno, 71, stood trial in the Adelaide District Court before Judge Paul Slattery — without a jury — after pleading not guilty to nine counts of unlawful sexual intercourse.

He is accused of sexually assaulting a girl who was a member of the group.

The ABC was granted permission by the court to view the complainant's evidence, where she told the court the sexual abuse started when she was 13 years old.

She described how she was afraid of Salerno, who the group referred to as "Taipan".

"Taipan was a person that we were made to believe to be feared," she said.

"To ever say no to him, you were disrespectful, it was subordinate and if you ever did say no to him you were punished."

The trial heard that the group, which consisted of about 30 members, was ranked below Salerno by what he called their "emotional quotient".

They would hold regular meetings where they would commonly say "praise Taipan", discuss ideas around the notion of the "ideal human environment" and "paradigm shifts".

"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," the complainant said.

"We would often wear white clothes because that was like a pure energy and we were often told we were there to serve Taipan, so we had to be open to the messages coming to us."

Bizarre practices and 'emotional' rankings

She told the court that when Taipan would enter the room, all of the group's members would stand to attention, put their right arm over their shoulder and say "strength and honour", in a similar way to how the soldiers react to Russell Crowe's character in the 2000 movie Gladiator.

"This was decided after the group had watched the movie Gladiator as a sign of respect and power," the complainant said.

She said there was a group of females who were selected to serve Taipan and that they would perform "healings" on him.

"A healing would sometimes be where there were five or six females around the bed and James was lying on the bed and one of us would be giving him a healing or a massage," the complainant said.

She told the court she was taught by older females in the group how to give the accused massages, how to cut his nails, run his baths, cook his dinner and pick his fruit.

"Taipan only had the best of everything," she said.

The court heard those deemed to have a lower emotional quotient were treated like servants or "shitkickers" and would have to salute higher ranking members.

The rankings were decided at the group's meetings and if someone wanted to move up a rank, a subgroup called the "Wisdom Bank" would vote on it.

The complainant said those who believed Taipan was God and carried out what he wanted were ranked higher in the group.

"We had to be thinking the same as what Taipan thought and we were told that time and time again and often punished if we didn't," she said.

Another member of the group told the court that she received training on "how to be a good female", which included how to dress, how to behave and how to conduct themselves around males.

"We were told by Taipan that males defer to God and we defer to the males," she said.

Allegations 'not true' according to defence

During his cross-examination, David Edwardson QC said the complainant's allegations against his client were 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.

During his evidence, Italian-born Salerno said that he developed the group to achieve the "ideal human environment" after returning from the Vietnam War.

"I experienced war, desperate war, I really believe war is the worst possible human environment," he said.

"I would suggest to you that you were never required to look after him in that way.

"I thought after I had that experience that it should be possible to create the opposite environment, which would be the ideal human environment.

"We thought if we could then give everybody a rank structure, it would actually create harmony."

Salerno rejected leader claim

Salerno denied being the leader of the group and said he was "just the person who kept people going" and also rejected claims that he was feared by others.

"You can't go with other people's perception… I have no recollection that ever has happened," he said.

"You cannot create an ideal human environment unless people are physically, emotionally and intellectually independent."

Salerno told the court he did not like massages or having his nails done and that the complainant never attended to his personal needs.

When questioned over claims of children being punished for not following orders of other children ranked higher than them, Salerno said pain was prohibited as a form of punishment.

The cult lived in the historic Arbury Park mansion in Aldgate between 2001 and 2008, before they relocated to Beaudesert in south-east Queensland.

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

Judge Slattery is expected to hand down his verdict in February.

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