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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 quickly learned that being a hippie behind bars wasn’t such a great idea. “I was practicing yoga, and this big white guy told me that wasn’t acceptable,” he says. “Then I saw this hippie-looking effeminate kid, and these cool guys I’m talking to take him into this cell and rape him. It was an eye-opener, and all of a sudden, I’m thinking about fighting again.”

Upon being released from jail in 1969, Aguilar got married; fathered a son, Geronimo; and quickly sank back into the depths. After a few years of nonstop cocaine use, he left his wife and son behind and graduated to heroin. He also fell in love with a 22-year-old woman named Sandra De Falco. She was engaged to someone else at the time, but Aguilar charmed her, and they remain together to this day. “I was fooled,” she says. “He was a very charismatic guy. I started dating him; I helped him get a job. I became his helper. It’s been 34 years, and I’m still with him.”

De Falco convinced him to try to get clean, and Aguilar spent a brief stint at a Jehovah’s Witness-run rehabilitation clinic in Oregon. He then returned to Anaheim, hoping to get a fresh start. But he immediately fell back into his old lifestyle, selling cocaine with his brother, who asked him to pick up $100,000 worth of pure Peruvian rock in Ojai and deliver it to a house in Orange County. “By the time I started driving back with it, I decided to pinch a little bit for myself,” Aguilar says. “Then a little bit more, and then it was, ‘Fuck those guys; I’m taking all of it.’”

Guarding his ever-diminishing bag of coke, Aguilar blockaded himself in the apartment he shared with De Falco and her 3-year-old son, cranked up the music, and started to get high.

What happened next, Aguilar says, is blurry in his mind. “I started doing speedballs, mixing heroin with coke, and started getting nutty,” he says. “The neighbors started complaining, and this one lady said something, and, boom, I knocked her. Then my stepson did something, and I just whacked him. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

Responding to a domestic-violence call, police rushed into Aguilar’s apartment and caught him trying to flush the remainder of his stash down the toilet. “When they arrested me, it was a relief,” Aguilar says. By then, he weighed around 130 pounds, his face more skull than skin.

Aguilar pled guilty to assault. At Chino State Prison, several months into his newfound sobriety, Aguilar experienced an awakening. “One day at chapel call, I sat in a small room and heard someone talk about Jesus,” he says. “And I made a decision that day. I knew I wanted to change my life around. I became an addict for the Lord. I asked Jesus to come into my heart. I was such a good inmate they let me out [after] just under two years.”

*     *     *

While behind bars, Aguilar married De Falco, much to her parents’ dismay, and moved back to Anaheim upon his release from prison in 1978. Together, they raised two sons, Matthew and Philip Jr. His first job was sweeping streets for Anaheim’s maintenance department. “Then God told me he wanted me to go to Bible college,” he says. While taking classes at Pacific Baptist College in San Dimas, Aguilar worked his way up the ranks of the Anaheim Baptist Church from youth pastor to assistant pastor to co-pastor. It didn’t take him long to realize he wasn’t cut out to be a Baptist minister, at least not in the traditional sense.

“I didn’t want to do organ music,” he explains. “I wanted to do rock music, punk music, and ride my Harley.” Fellow Baptists told him he could ride a Honda, but a Harley was out of the question. “They said, ‘You’re a little too wild for us, your music is too loud, you are hanging around with tongue-talking Christians, playing guitar. You’re not a good conservative Baptist.’ That’s why I started Set Free.”

Aguilar’s new church started in a friend’s living room in 1982, but with help from then-Anaheim Mayor Dan Roth, it moved into a large warehouse on Anaheim Boulevard—just up the street from City Hall—and quickly grew into one of the largest churches in Orange County. Pastors from other churches began referring their wilder-looking members to Aguilar, who took all comers regardless of their appearance, demeanor or past criminal record. Set Free’s ranks swelled each week, and before long, Aguilar had moved his family, including his estranged oldest son and Geronimo’s wife, into a pair of houses in north Anaheim.

Nearby were other homes for recovering addicts that Aguilar purchased and ran like homeless shelters, complete with “overseers” who made sure nobody used drugs, drank alcohol or otherwise engaged in what Aguilar called “backsliding” activities. Set Free opened a rehabilitation ranch and communal homes in the Inland Empire.

His success in attracting hardcore followers from the ranks of Southern California’s street gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Hells Angels, Mongols and Vagos earned Aguilar fame in both the secular and Christian press. Cementing his outreach to the biker gangs was his first Christian motorcycle ministry, Servants for Christ, which later morphed into the Set Free Soldiers, which consisted of Aguilar’s toughest, most muscle-bound congregants—all of them, like him, covered in tattoos.

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