Published January 13, 2015
In more than 25 years at the helm of his biker-inspired Christian ministry, Phillip Aguilar has counseled Hells Angels, married Mongols and provided a place to crash for just about every hog-riding gangster and drug addict he's ever met.
But police say after years of bringing God to outlaws, Aguilar's chopper-riding Christians may have morphed into just the kind of gang they claim to save people from.
Aguilar and four other members of the Set Free Soldiers were to be arraigned Thursday on multiple weapons and gang felonies after a bar brawl that ended with two Hells Angels stabbed. One member of Aguilar's group is charged with attempted murder.
The case threatens to unravel Aguilar's counterculture Christian empire, a domain already well-known among bikers that's recently gained some traction in the mainstream.
His church, which runs several Southern California rehab homes, recently inspired an A&E reality show pilot, has close ties to a Christian rap group and has an urban-influenced clothing line called Soldier Made.
Some of those in the close-knit and largely under-the-radar Christian biker community, however, now wonder if Aguilar is converting sinners - or if they're converting him.
"I'm in seedy places, I'm in bad places, I meet with bad people and some of the outlaws, you bet. The key question is, are you participating or are you their minister?" said Tom Longbrake, a twice-ordained minister with Bikers for Christ who's often crossed paths with Set Free Soldiers at biker charities.
Aguilar, 60, who declined repeated interview requests, is free on bail and plans to plead not guilty to the charges, said one of his sons, Hebrew "Roc" Aguilar, an associate pastor.
His attorney said Aguilar and the others are not gang members and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Set Free Soldiers were attacked by the Hells Angels while they ate hamburgers and shot pool at Blackie's by the Sea after watching a member's son in a surfing contest, said attorney Lloyd Freberg.
"The police agencies are in a real feeding frenzy on this," Freberg said. "It's people's imaginations run amok."
But search warrant affidavits and police reports - portions of which are sealed - indicate the fight may have begun because the Hells Angels felt the Set Free Soldiers were on their turf. A Set Free pastor caught fleeing the fight with a bloody knife told police the brawl began when a Hells Angels leader confronted Aguilar and told him his group was not authorized to take the Hells Angels' business.
The pastor, who was also to be arraigned Thursday in Orange County Superior Court, told police he was terrified of retaliation now that Set Free members had drawn Hells Angels blood.
A pre-dawn raid at the Set Free compound of four suburban homes just miles from Disneyland yielded gang paraphernalia, thousands of rounds of ammunition and dozens of guns and knives, said Sgt. Evan Sailor of the Newport Beach police. The knives included a tiny dagger designed to be hidden in a motorcycle gas tank.
Sailor said detectives also were alarmed by YouTube and MySpace videos that show members posing with guns and knives and riding their bikes with their faces covered with black handkerchiefs and, in one case, a skull mask.
One video identifies them as a "group of men who love Jesus and love to ride hard." Another ends with a young man holding what appears to be a machine gun as heavy metal music blares.
"To me, it's indicative of more than just a Christian group. It's indicative of an outlaw motorcycle gang," Sailor said. "It's not like they're showing Bible study classes."
Yet Aguilar's son said the Set Free Soldiers are hardworking Christians who act and dress the way they do so their gospel resonates with hard-to-reach sinners: the drug addicts, the outlaw bikers and the prostitutes.
The elder Aguilar's own checkered past, including a stint in state prison for child abuse and a former heroin addiction, gives him even more credibility with his ragtag flock. Many call him "Pastor Phil" or "The Chief" and don't seem to mind the sometimes iron-fisted control he exerts over those in his rehab homes.
Kevin Knuth, 29, showed up on Aguilar's doorstep in 2004 just out of jail, homeless and addicted to drugs. He's been there ever since, living in the rehab center or sleeping on Aguilar's couch and helping with errands, household chores and the clothing line for free.
"The only place I find any sort of sanity, the only place where I feel like I have any kind of family, is here with Pastor Phil," said Knuth, who now wears a silver cross necklace and is drug-free and off probation.