Carmine Baffa may be his own best advertisement, and his worst.
He’s a charismatic, self-made man who built a successful career as a “life coach” and motivational speaker while holding seminars across the country.
“He has amazing ability to influence people and persuade them,” said Michal Wallace, who worked as an apprentice to Baffa in 1997. “It’s like some kind of organized religion, only there’s no organization.”
Police say Baffa also used his charm and street smarts for a sinister purpose — persuading as many as eight clients in metro Atlanta to have sex with him while claiming it was part of their treatment.
Baffa sometimes told people he was a therapist, although he is not a licensed psychologist, psychotherapist or counselor of any sort, police said.
“He has some sort of doctorate that he got online,” said Cpl. Illana Spellman, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County police. “Technically for him to tell people he was a doctor, I guess he could introduce himself as such. But he’s not licensed to practice.”
His half-brother said Baffa was actually a high school dropout who grew his business from the ground up with hard work and self-study.
Baffa, 52, is being held without bond at the Gwinnett jail on charges including rape and aggravated child molestation.
Gwinnett police said he raped two girls, now 13 and 19, and a 14-year-old boy in separate, private life coaching sessions at his former home in Lawrenceville.
Cobb police have filed an additional 22 charges against Baffa. He is accused of sexually assaulting four women and a young girl who attended his seminars at a Marietta hotel.
Baffa turned down a request for a jailhouse interview.
His defense attorney, Drew Findling, said Baffa intends to prove his innocence.
“Anyone who sat through the preliminary hearing has to think these allegations are extremely questionable, both in the delay, their sincerity and most of all their believability,” Findling said.
People who associated with Baffa give him mixed reviews. Some people say Baffa changed their lives.
Libby Gladden, 61, of Atlanta, attended every one of Baffa’s seminars in recent years and described him as a “very skilled hypnotist.” Gladden said Baffa helped her quit smoking and lose 100 pounds.
“The Carmine that I know has only helped people,” Gladden said. “I have never seen him do anything inappropriate with anyone, including myself.”
Wallace, who worked with Baffa for nine months, said Baffa developed a small, cultlike following of devotees. His “human performance engineering” seminars typically drew 20 to 60 people. Police have estimated he hosted 14 seminars a year in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.
Wallace nevertheless began to question his mentor’s motives. Baffa often had public fallouts with girlfriends and close associates, Wallace said.
“I saw it over and over and over again,” Wallace said. “He has a tendency to draw people in, but then later has a tendency to escalate very small problems or disagreements into larger ones. He doesn’t want to admit he’s wrong about anything.”
‘Consummate Don Juan’
One of five children, Baffa was raised by a single mother on welfare who worked night shifts as a barmaid, according to his half-brother, Joseph Baffa. Joseph Baffa lives in Georgia but asked that his location not be given because he fears retribution.
He said Carmine Baffa was 5 years old when his father was murdered. After that, the family lived “like gypsies,” Joseph Baffa said, moving from one apartment to another in the New York area when they had difficulty paying rent.
Carmine Baffa married for the first time at 17 and again about 10 years ago, his half-brother said. Neither union lasted.
Carmine Baffa was known to have a short attention span with women — he was “the consummate Don Juan,” Joseph Baffa said.
Joseph Baffa admitted he has had a rocky relationship with his sibling and has not communicated with Carmine Baffa since 1996. However, he is skeptical of the rape and child molestation accusations.
“I wasn’t there,” Joseph Baffa said. “But how could he do that? I just don’t see it.”
The woman who complained to police about Baffa’s alleged relationships with young clients is his live-in business partner, Pamela Harris.
Harris ran the business side of things and shared a romantic relationship with Baffa. She knew about some of his alleged activities, according to police, but she has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing.
Gwinnett police detective Diane King has said Harris may be another victim. Harris did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
At the preliminary hearing in Gwinnett County, King said the former patients participated in “cuddling sessions” with Baffa on an air mattress on his office floor during private counseling sessions in 2006 and 2007.
The 19-year-old said she didn’t want to have sex with Baffa, “but she felt she could not say no and was afraid of him,” the officer testified. The 13-year-old was actually living with Baffa after he convinced the girl’s family she was suicidal and needed his full-time therapy.
Before he settled on “life coaching,” Baffa dabbled in many professions — electrician, mechanic, jeweler, pawnbroker, pilot, private eye. About 20 years ago, Baffa began researching an alternative approach to psychotherapy called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or “NLP,” Joseph Baffa said.
He met others with similar interests online and started attending NLP seminars aimed at enhancing communication and personal influence. Soon, Baffa was hosting his own self-help seminars.
Baffa apparently made a handsome sum from seminars and counseling fees. Gladden, the former client, said Baffa charged about $1,000 per person at his seminars, and up to $500 for private sessions. Patients were often referred to him from licensed psychotherapists and counselors, police said.
Neighbors in the upper-crust Gainesville subdivision where Baffa relocated last year noticed he bought luxury items such as a boat, pool table and a brand-new BMW.
“He spent lavishly,” said neighbor Jacqueline Bailey. “He had bragged how much money he had and how he made big purchases with cash.”
Now Baffa lives in a jail cell in Gwinnett County. It’s a far cry from the position he once commanded at the center of a circle of admirers.
Allan Allard, a counselor in Lawrenceville who referred clients to Baffa, said he was once impressed by Baffa’s “charismatic personality” and communication skills. However, Allard has since come to regret his association with the man.
“I’m glad he’s been arrested and the media is paying attention,” Allard said, “because he needs to be held accountable.”