Set Free leader, saint or con man?

The Orange County Register/June 3, 2010

The tidy room is dominated by a lengthy brown couch, large-screen TV and children's toys stacked neatly in a corner.

Outside, a few of Aguilar's 10 grandchildren play on the front lawn behind a white picket fence. A sign in the yard reads, "A Star Honor Student Lives Here."

The picture of routine domestic life on Archer Street is no facade, Aguilar insists - despite allegations by prosecutors that his organization has, in recent years, descended into a criminal street gang.

In a recently concluded court case stemming from a July 2008 bar fight with the Hells Angels, prosecutors charged Aguilar with felony weapons and street-terrorism charges.

"After the search warrant was conducted (following the '08 incident), we recovered a lot more guns, knives and other weapons than we did Bibles," said Erik Petersen, an Orange County deputy district attorney who prosecutes gang activity.

Last month, however, charges against Aguilar stemming from the incident were reduced after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to probation.

"A lot of us (Set Free Soldiers) are scary-looking people," says Aguilar, 62, whose tattoos - too many to count - snake up his face, culminating in a tribal design that circles his left eye.

"But the police are wasting a lot of taxpayers' money on me," he adds.

"I've put 30 years into this ministry. We don't fight or do anything illegal. If anyone in our club is found with a weapon, they're out."

Aguilar then picks up his 1-year-old granddaughter, Sophia.

Suddenly, the alleged thug is just another sappy granddad.

Aguilar walks into a soundproof room where his son, Matthew, 31, a musician, makes CDs. Biker, sports and music memorabilia fill the walls.

Matthew, who also runs a T-shirt business, sits down at the mixing board. Aguilar's wife of 35 years, Sandra, sits on a couch.

"Pastor Phil," as he prefers to be called, pulls up a stool and turns serious. He has some points to get across.

Aguilar says for the last 30 years he's been on a crusade for Christ - not crime. The Anaheim native converted to Christianity while in prison for about two years in the mid-1970s for child abuse after he hit a stepson.

Finding Jesus, Aguilar insists, changed everything.

In 1982, Aguilar founded Set Free Worldwide Ministries, which ministers to ex-convicts and recovering addicts out of what used to be four houses on Archer Street.

"I'm a hard core guy for Jesus,"' Aguilar says, referring to the outcasts and lost souls he picks up off the streets. "I go where the pizza man doesn't deliver."

Now down to two homes, Aguilar opens his doors to people trying to start over. He offers them odd jobs, food and a place to sleep - and his preaching.

Sundays are for Bible lessons.

Aguilar's church has grown to about 200 members, including "detox ranches" in San Diego and Yucaipa.

There are active chapters of Set Free Worldwide Ministries in several states, as well as a few overseas.

Every Saturday, Aguilar and about two dozen other Set Free members hop on their Harley-Davidson motorcycles and cruise around.

Aguilar was on such an outing two years ago when he and some biker brothers got into trouble with the law.

When he talks, Aguilar frequently waves his hands in the air - the preacher's showmanship difficult to suppress. He speaks with passion and, at times, a tinge of anger.

The bar brawl, on a hot July afternoon at a waterfront bar in Newport Beach, eventually led to Aguilar's arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder - along with six other Set Free members.

Police say the brawl was planned ahead of time. Aguilar and his son say that's nonsense.

"An ambush on the Hells Angels in the middle of summer at the beach on the Balboa Peninsula?" Matthew Aguilar says. "Really?"

On that day, Set Free riders were in the middle of a "beach run" from Aliso Beach to Huntington Beach when they decided to take a break at Blackies by the Sea.

About 15 minutes later, members of the rival motorcycle club Hells Angels showed up.

A fight erupted after a Hells Angel threw a punch at a bar patron who wasn't a Set Free member, according to Aguilar.

Then members of the rival gangs joined in.

Aguilar says he didn't engage in the melee, which lasted a couple of minutes.

"I tried to calm the storms," he says.

During the fight, two members of the Hells Angels were stabbed, and one Set Free Soldier was pelted with a billiard ball.

"I didn't even know anyone there had a knife," Aguilar says.

A week after the brawl, about 150 police raided homes associated with the motorcycle clubs, collecting several weapons.

Ultimately, prosecutors filed attempted murder charges against only one of the Set Free Soldiers, Jose Enrique Quinones, 43, of Anaheim. He is serving eight years in state prison for the stabbing.

As for Aguilar, prosecutors eventually determined that they only could link him to a single bullet found at his home, and not to other weapons. This led to the plea agreement on May 13.

Like his father, Matthew also was sentenced to probation. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of a pair of brass knuckles.

Phil Aguilar says the misdemeanor convictions prove that the heart of the case - that the Set Free Soldiers is a criminal gang - is a fallacy. He said he didn't even know there was a stray bullet in his house; Matthew says the brass knuckles were decorative, like the ones wrapping around a coffee cup in his studio.

"The truth came out," Phil Aguilar says.

Two young women are trimming the edges of the curbside grass outside Aguilar's house.

Sunshine, one of the trimmers, is a recovering binge drinker; Ashley, the other, a recovering speed addict.

"I've helped thousands of people like them in Orange County," Aguilar says. "And all of the sudden, we're the baddest biker gang around?"

Despite what Aguilar describes as a terrifying pre-dawn raid on his home that included SWAT teams, armored tanks and M-16s, he isn't bitter. He says he'll continue to be friendly with law enforcement.

Most of all, he says he's fired up to preach even more.

"We're really just about beans, rice and Jesus Christ."

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