By Daniel Politi, Almudena Calatrava and Leonardo la Valle | Associated Press
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Opera star Placido Domingo’s name has appeared in an investigation of a sect-like organization in Argentina that also had U.S. offices and whose leaders have been charged with crimes, including sexual exploitation.
Domingo, the Spanish opera singer who has faced accusations of sexual harassment from numerous women over the past three years, has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the Argentina case.
“Placido didn’t commit a crime, nor is he part of the organization, but rather he was a consumer of prostitution,” said a law enforcement official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the investigation continues. Prostitution is not illegal in Argentina.
Law enforcement officers have carried out dozens of raids in Buenos Aires targeting the Buenos Aires Yoga School, which “built a cult around its leader” and reduced members to “a situation of slavery and/or sexual exploitation,” according to prosecutors’ documents in the Argentine case against the school.
The organization set up a business structure that included offices in Argentina and the United States, including branches in at least three U.S. cities: Las Vegas, Chicago and New York.
So far, 19 people have been detained in Argentina, while at least three suspects are thought to remain at large inside the South American country and four are being sought in the United States.
Domingo has not spoken publicly about the latest developments and his representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Wiretaps that were part of the judicial investigation recorded conversations in which a man who authorities identify as Domingo spoke to a member of the group, identified as Susana Mendelievich, about meeting up with the opera star while he was in Buenos Aires for a series of concerts in April.
The investigation into the sect has implicated people with connections to the classical music world and who performed with Domingo in the past, including Mendelievich, an Argentine pianist.
Mendelievich is alleged to be the person in charge of the organization’s sexual exploitation activities, according to a judicial official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
In one recording, the man identified as Domingo talks to Mendelievich about how she can go up to his hotel room without being detected by his staff.
“When we leave the dinner we come separately, right?” the man identified as Domingo says in the recording.
Mendelievich then talks to Juan Percowicz, 84, who was the alleged leader of the group.
“He already called me and set up the deal so I can stay in his hotel tonight without his agents realizing,” she said.
In an earlier call with Percowicz, Mendelievich implies she had previously met with Domingo in New York.
“Among other things … Placido said he could come visit us. I mean, visit us means coming to visit me because he comes to my house in New York, and he reminded me of that yesterday,” the woman identified as Mendelievich can be heard saying in the recording.
Sexual trafficking and exploitation were the main sources of income for the group that had an estimated revenue of around $500,000 per month, according to the judicial official.
The Buenos Aires Yoga School had numerous groups of women who were forced to maintain sexual encounters in exchange for money, prosecutors allege. At least seven women were incorporated into the group when they were still children or teenagers and were sexually exploited, according to the prosecution’s documents.
People came from the United States to Argentina to have sex with the women and investigators say women were also transported to neighboring Uruguay and the U.S. for sexual encounters.
“The encounters supposed a practice of sexual slavery because the ‘students’ were put at the disposal of the clients at the time and place they wanted, for long periods of time,” according to the documents.
The organization had ties to other well-known public figures and their names should become public once indictments are made official, the judicial official added.
In addition to alleged sexual exploitation, the group purportedly sold treatments, including what were known as “sleep cures” that involved giving people medication that would make them sleep for days at a time.
Percowicz, along with other members of the group, has been arrested under the order of Judge Ariel Lijo, who placed dozens of properties and vehicles under embargo.
The organization had approximately 179 students, all of whom were ranked in seven levels. Advancing levels involved a “spiritual evolution” with the goal of reaching the seventh level that implied “eternal reincarnation.”
In order to advance, members had to participate in numerous courses and carry out tasks, with Percowicz holding the final decision on who could advance. The process involved socially isolating the members from their “biological family” and friends, according to the charging documents.
The organization also offered “philosophical coaching” courses through a separate company, the B.A. Group, for those who had yet to join the school. These courses on subjects like “personal happiness” and “leadership” were often used to woo new members.
The organization was previously under judicial investigation in the early 1990s but the probe was closed before it reached trial.
Domingo, now 81, was one of opera’s biggest and most successful stars and a member of The Three Tenors, which included José Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti.
Domingo’s image was tarnished in the United States after more than 20 women accused him, in stories published by The Associated Press, of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior in encounters that took place from the late 1980s to the 2000s. Dozens more in the classical music world told AP his behavior was an open secret in the industry.
Investigations by the American Guild of Musical Artists and the Los Angeles Opera, where Domingo had served as general director, found sexual harassment allegations against him to be credible.
The accusations and subsequent findings halted Domingo’s career in the U.S. but he has continued to perform in Europe and Latin America. His website says he is currently on tour in Mexico with performances later this month scheduled in Italy.
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report.