Long controversial for its aggressive evangelism aimed at those with a troubled past - ex-convicts and drug addicts among them - the Anaheim-based Christian motorcycle gang known as the Set Free Soldiers found itself in deeper trouble Wednesday when its leader and half a dozen members were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
The arrests, which followed a double stabbing in a brawl with the Hells Angels at a Newport Beach bar July 27, was the latest brush with the law for the group of black-leather-clad bikers, which has straddled the line between Christian outreach group and outlaw motorcycle gang.
By late Wednesday, authorities had arrested 10 members of the Set Free Soldiers and the Hells Angels during raids in Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Rancho Santa Margarita that started at 5 a.m., said Sgt. Evan Sailor of the Newport Beach Police Department.
The operation involved more than 150 officers, including SWAT teams and federal drug enforcement agents.
Seven members of the Set Free Soldiers, including leader Phil Aguilar, 60, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and are each being held on $1-million bail, police said.
Three members of the Hells Angels are also in custody, including John Phillip Lloyd, a 41-year-old Costa Mesa man charged with assault with a deadly weapon. The other two were arrested on drug charges.
Others are still being sought on arrest warrants.
The arrests stemmed from a 15-person brawl at the Newport Beach bar Blackie's by the Sea, where Set Free members allegedly stabbed two Hells Angels members.
During the brawl, the Hells Angels also allegedly struck one of the Set Free members in the head with a pool ball.
On its website, which appeared to have been taken down Wednesday evening, Set Free Soldiers call themselves "a group of men who love Jesus and love to ride hard."
"We are not your normal motorcycle club," the statement reads. "Some say we are too good for the bad guys, and too bad for the good guys."
Aguilar, a Harley-riding ex-convict and former drug addict who served time for child abuse in the 1970s, converted to Christianity in prison. He became the founding pastor of Set Free Worldwide Ministries in 1982. But he and his ministry have been highly controversial.
His MySpace.com page describes Aguilar as pastor or "the Chief" of the group. Next to his photo is the statement: "Sinner or Saint you be the judge!"
Police said that through its ministry, the gang recruited people discharged from parole, state prison and county jails and has an outreach program for convicted felons.
Although Set Free has been praised for its streetwise approach, its detractors say it is an autocratic organization that exerts too much control over its members by confiscating their belongings and forcing them to break off relationships with friends and families.
Law enforcement officials and former members say that the group has devolved into a motorcycle gang like any other, and that it has ties to the Mongols, an outlaw biker gang that has engaged in warfare with the Hells Angels.
Set Free chapters in the Midwest have provided security at Mongol funerals, said Steve Cook, an Independence, Mo., police officer and president of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Assn.
"It is an outlaw club," Cook said. "Their supposed Christian affiliation doesn't change my opinion."
A former Set Free member said Aguilar has performed Mongol weddings and officiated at their funerals. The man, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said he left the group about five years ago when Aguilar began taking the church in a new direction and started recruiting tattooed bikers. Some members carry guns, he said.
"Phil always wanted to be somebody in the outlaw biker world, and he's been hiding behind the cross for a long time," the former member said. "When he began recruiting members, he figured the badder they were the better."
Members of other Christian motorcycle groups said they are afraid Set Free's troubles will give them all a bad name.
"It puts all of us Christian bikers in a negative light, that all of a sudden we're gangs too," said Radawn McKinney, vice president of a motorcycle ministry based in Orange. "We're not all thugs and don't have gang behavior. We have to go out and do God's work."
Despite Set Free's hard-core reputation - its website features videos of members in fistfights - some who have worked with the group were surprised at the gravity of the charges.
Sandie Moore, 52, a retired nurse who lives in Fountain Valley, said Wednesday's arrests shocked her. She said she had worked with Aguilar's group on charity events for organizations such as the Children's Hospital of Orange County, where they had provided security.
"What I saw today is far, far, far from how I know them," Moore said. "I can't believe they are being portrayed as thugs. I think maybe some of them who haven't corrected their ways got rowdy, but their behavior is totally contrary to how they acted in front of me."
Carol Cantiberos, 47, of Buena Park, a Set Free member who lived at one of its group homes in Anaheim for three weeks and goes to its church services every Saturday, said Aguilar and the gang helped her stay sober for the last 86 days.
"He doesn't ask you about your history or what you've done bad; he just accepts you with open arms," she said. "I don't believe he would do anything unless he was protecting himself, because he's turned around."
But news of the raid was no surprise to Rose Lambie, 65, who lives three houses down from one of the four South Archer Street homes in Anaheim that were targeted. Aguilar owns several houses in the 300 block of South Archer.
Aguilar, she said, is well-known and the gang had "taken over the neighborhood in a lot of ways."
She said the gang has a history of intimidating neighbors, who had met with one another and with police to raise concerns about their behavior.
Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara who featured Set Free in his 1992 book "Churches That Abuse," said the group is a "control-centered, authoritarian organization" that has displayed cult-like behavior, even as it cozied up to mainstream evangelical groups and Aguilar appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network programs.
"They feel they're reaching a kind of person the larger religious community can't reach," Enroth said. "A lot of people on the margins of society may have been helped, but they are not always aware of the tentacles that an organization like this can have on their lives."