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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.
Aguilar’s profile increased when televangelists Jan and Paul Crouch of Costa Mesa’s Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) offered him a television show and even invited him to join the board of directors. “I was a novelty for them,” Aguilar says. “I had long hair and a ponytail and Ray-Ban sunglasses, and with my own Friday-night TV show, people thought I was somebody.”
Another fan of Aguilar was Oden Fong, a Christian rock musician who, by the early 1980s, was a pastor with Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. Calvary was also ministering to society’s unwanted—in this case, flower children turned Jesus freaks. “I thought it was great,” Fong recalls of Set Free. “I thought we really needed a church like that that would reach out to the gang members and the drug addicts and all the people that were so dark and wayward. I wanted to go up and hang out with them.”
Seeing Aguilar in action, though, Fong felt the pastor’s grasp of scripture somewhat lacking, a deficiency at least partially overcome by his energetic preaching style. “Set Free were trying to be Christians in their own way, but they weren’t getting a lot of instruction from the Bible,” Fong says. “They were getting it from their pastor, but their pastor wasn’t giving them a lot. ‘You need to get saved! You need to be a good person’—stuff like that. But he never really taught them how to change because he still had to have this persona of being tough, cool, on the edge, thumbing his nose at the rest of the church.”
Nevertheless, Fong—who worked closely with Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith—began referring members of Calvary’s various congregations to Set Free. “If someone was too wild or too tatted, we’d send them there,” Fong says. “Set Free grew really fast that way because there was no church like theirs. They were cutting-edge.”
Fong’s impression of Aguilar changed, however, when several former Set Free members came to Calvary Chapel asking to talk to Smith about Aguilar. Smith asked Fong to handle the meeting. The group, which included the parents of Geronimo’s wife, complained that Aguilar ran Set Free like a cult leader and that he pressured members not to visit their relatives.
“They were saying, ‘We need your help,’” Fong recalls. “’Set Free has taken our children and has turned them against us and is keeping them from seeing us.’” Lacking any authority to censure the leader of another church, Fong says, his first instinct was to not get involved. But the Set Free defectors, with their tales of Aguilar’s verbally abusive behavior and controlling leadership style, persisted. Finally, Fong’s secretary received a four-page list of complaints.
“They were all control issues,” says Fong. “Phil would tell people who they could marry and who they couldn’t marry. He had girls scrubbing bleachers with toothbrushes, just things that were pretty raw and forceful.” Realizing the serious nature of the allegations, Fong decided Calvary should share the information with other churches and shouldn’t refer anyone to Set Free until the matter was cleared up.
Fliers bearing photographs of Aguilar and the name of his church were circulated throughout the country, leading religious groups to successfully shut down efforts by Set Free to open churches in locations such as Hesperia, Lake Elsinore, among others. Fong also agreed to an interview with KCOP-TV Channel 13. When a reporter asked him why people were comparing Aguilar to Jim Jones and David Koresh, Fong responded, “Because people feel like they can’t live without him.” The station broadcast his words over a video montage showing piles of bodies at the Jones compound in Guyana and the burning buildings of the Koresh compound in Waco, Texas.
In the midst of the controversy, Orange County Register reporters visited Aguilar at the Set Free compound and asked for his side of the story. The paper’s devastating June 9, 1991, report—splashed across the front page, featuring multiple articles—quoted people who had lived in Set Free homes complaining about having to work essentially as unpaid servants for Aguilar and other family members and noted that during their interviews with Aguilar, he paused and pointed at “a middle-aged woman who has lived in his homes for three years,” telling the reporters “she even picks up my dirty underwear.” It revealed a pastor who publicly said he lived in poverty but privately owned classic cars, flashy motorcycles and leather jackets, and it disclosed Aguilar had not only assaulted De Falco’s son, but also physically abused the 7-year-old son of a former girlfriend during his drug days.
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