He Shall Be Set Free

Phil Aguilar’s brand of outlaw Christianity made him an evangelical powerhouse—and has law enforcement calling the pastor a criminal

He Shall Be Set Free
Phil Aguilar’s tattoos are like the rings of a tree. They cover virtually every square inch of his skin, from his temple to his trousers, tracing his life in chronological order. The oldest one, spelled out in faded gray letters, reads, “El Friday,” Aguilar’s nickname in high school. “Friday was the headhunter, Robinson Crusoe’s partner,” Aguilar explains. “I always had this habit of starting fights, flicking cigarettes in people’s faces, going after anybody who looked like they were having a nice time in life, so that’s what my friends called me.”

Etched into one of Aguilar’s shoulders is a portrait of a beautiful chola that he commissioned while in prison during the early 1970s. A close-up of the navel of an orange on Aguilar’s elbow declared to inmates that he was from Orange County. Elsewhere on Aguilar are a bulldog with boxing gloves, a pair of eyeballs and a skull with a Mohawk that Aguilar improbably claims is a portrait of an ex-girlfriend.

Newer tattoos include the Star of David and illustration of a rabbi Aguilar got on a 1982 trip to Israel, six years after he found Christ while inside a small prison chapel at Chino State Prison and dedicated himself to preaching the Bible to fellow heroin addicts and ex-cons. A biker with wings bears the motto “Jesus Davidson,” a reference to Aguilar’s Harley-Davidson-riding biker club, the Set Free Soldiers, whose members dress in black, the club name stitched onto the backs of their leather vests above a rendering of a mustachioed biker in a German army helmet. Aguilar’s right forearm reads, “Set Free in Jesus,” a tattoo he got in 1976, the year he became born again and about six years before he founded a church in Anaheim called Set Free that, within a decade, grew into one of Orange County’s first mega-churches, with 4,000 weekly parishioners.

But it’s Aguilar’s most recent tattoo that is the most noticeable. It’s a whirlwind of black ink that covers the left side of his face, swirling from his forehead to his upper cheek. Aguilar says he paid for the first stage of the tattoo years ago, when he figured he’d never have to worry about job interviews again. If things had gone differently in Aguilar’s life, the tattoo would have covered his entire face by now. Instead, two years ago, Aguilar and several other Soldiers brawled with the Hells Angels at the Newport Beach bar Blackie’s By the Sea. A few weeks later, more than 100 rifle-toting law-enforcement officers, supported by helicopters and armored cars, surrounded his home. The raid, one of the largest paramilitary operations carried out in Orange County in recent memory, destroyed Aguilar’s reputation—controversial as it already was—for good.

His sudden downfall provided a dramatic conclusion to one of the most awe-inspiring, if bizarre, religious movements in a county famous for spawning evangelists: the transformation of thousands of dangerous hoodlums, addicts and ne’er-do-wells other churches avoided like the plague into a flock of devoted followers who viewed Aguilar as their shepherd. But his charismatic style of Christianity eventually became his own undoing, making it possible for prosecutors to charge him with attempted murder thanks to a fight in which, by all accounts, Aguilar never threw a punch.

All of which explains his abruptly aborted facial tattoo. “Knowing I had to go to court, I decided to leave the tattoo like it was,” Aguilar explains.

“People ask me if it has a spiritual meaning,” he adds. “The truth is, I just think it looks cool.”

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Until the melee at Blackie’s put him behind bars again, Phillip Russell Aguilar hadn’t crossed the law for 34 years. It’s a period of time that saw a remarkable turnaround in a life that up to that point had spiraled downward into delinquency, violence, drug addiction and self-destruction. The road that led Aguilar to the dark night of his soul and, by his reckoning, into the clear light of love and redemption began in 1947 in the Olive Street neighborhood of Anaheim, where Aguilar was born to a bricklayer and stay-at-home mom who doted over him and his seven siblings.

When he was about 12 years old, Aguilar discovered his father was having an affair with the cleaning lady. “Next thing I know, he moves in with this woman and, boom, has two kids who are going to the same school as me,” he says. “I’m mad at my mom, mad at the world and just didn’t give a shit about anybody.” Aguilar began skipping classes with his friends in a gang he started called the Olive Street Crew, drinking and smoking pot, and ripping off trains that rolled through his neighborhood.

By the time Aguilar was 19, he had bleached his hair in an attempt to fit in with his white friends and passed his time selling marijuana, trying to get laid and surfing at Orange County’s beaches. For a while, he tagged along with some kids from Anaheim High School who dropped LSD religiously every weekend, hiking into Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs and experiencing unforgettable acid. “I got really into it,” he recalls. “I traded all my rock & roll for Ravi Shankar, gave up sex, became a little monk—and then I got busted for $10 [worth] of pot.”

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