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

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Back in Anaheim, Set Free increasingly ministered to biker gangs through the Set Free Soldiers. Matthew, who aside from his hip-hop work also made videos for the church, often filmed weddings and funerals for gangs such as the Mongols while his father officiated.

The club’s outlaw image didn’t go unnoticed by the cops. In Buena Park, police detained Matthew after he finished filming a Mongol funeral at a local cemetery, figuring Set Free worked security for them.

Law enforcement’s suspicion the Set Free Soldiers were really just another outlaw biker gang was bolstered by an event that took place early in the afternoon of July 27, 2008. That morning, Aguilar and about 15 Soldiers rode out from Anaheim to Aliso Viejo to watch one of the teenagers in Aguilar’s ministry compete in a skim-board contest. Then the group drove north along Pacific Coast Highway to see the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.

Just after 1:30 p.m., Aguilar and his entourage rolled into tourist-and-sunbather-packed Newport Beach for lunch. The group split up; some members strolled over to TK Burgers, others searched for an ice-cream stand. Aguilar and half a dozen Set Free Soldiers, including Matthew, walked into Blackie’s By the Sea, a popular pub.

Black-and-white security footage recorded at Blackie’s that afternoon shows Aguilar walking past a pool table to the bar, taking off his Set Free Soldiers vest and placing it on the back of a barstool—an act prosecutors claimed was a gang-related act of intimidation. A few minutes later, Aguilar exits the bar, talking on his cell phone. Prosecutors would later allege Aguilar was calling for backup, sending word to other Soldiers that they were needed for an expected rumble at the bar. Aguilar says he was calling his wife to let her know what time he was coming home, a claim backed by cell-phone records.

Five men walked into Blackie’s less than two minutes after Aguilar made that phone call. They were members of the Hells Angels, the largest motorcycle gang in the world. Ninety seconds later, the barroom erupted in violence. Escorted out of harm’s way into a corner by his son, Aguilar was perhaps the only one who sat out the fight. A Hells Angel hit a Soldier in the head with a pool ball, and Set Free’s Jose Enrique Quiñones stabbed two Hells Angels with a knife. Quiñones is now serving eight years in prison for attempted murder. Within a minute, the fight ended as the outnumbered Hells Angels retreated from the bar.

To this day, Aguilar claims he had no idea at the time that he’d just been involved in a fight with the Hells Angels. “It happened so quickly,” he says. “I kind of recognized one guy, and immediately one of the men started talking to me. I can’t tell you what he said, but I was talking to him and trying to work out some kind of issue. And a fellow next to me—I only know because I’ve seen the video—he took a swing at another fellow who was with us but who wasn’t a Set Free Soldier but who had made a negative comment.”

Not realizing anyone had been stabbed and seeing no serious injuries among his flock, Aguilar says, he was in no rush to leave Newport Beach. “We didn’t think we had done anything wrong, so we weren’t running away,” he says. But within a few minutes, roughly a dozen Newport Beach police officers responding to the fight detained Aguilar and the other Soldiers. No arrests were made, and Aguilar assumed that was the end of it. “As far as I knew, it was a regular fistfight,” he says. “I never saw or knew of a knife being pulled out. We didn’t have any clue until a couple of weeks later.”

That clue arrived at about 5 a.m. at Aguilar’s Anaheim compound, which includes two buildings that housed members of Set Free; his own house; and another building where his sons and their families live that hosts a cabana and a pool and doubles as the headquarters of the Set Free Church. Surrounding the Set Free compound were more than 150 police officers from Anaheim, Newport Beach and other cities; Orange County Sheriff’s deputies; and federal drug agents.

Aguilar awoke to the blast of flash grenades followed by the sounds of dogs barking, helicopters hovering overhead and police yelling through a megaphone. “We saw a tank out front and all these SWAT-team guys,” Aguilar says. “Brother, it was like the end of the world. I believe in the Rapture and all that stuff, and I thought this was the end thing of everything.”

Because they were certain the Set Free Soldiers were really gang members masquerading as Harley-riding evangelists, police didn’t break down doors. Instead, they called Aguilar and instructed him to have everyone—including his wife, two sons and several of his grandchildren—come out with their hands up. That accomplished, police searched the compound. Instead of finding drugs or caches of weaponry, they found three items: a Colt pistol in the bedroom of Aguilar’s son-in-law Michael Timanus, a pair of brass knuckles in Matthew’s room and a bullet in a jar beside Aguilar’s bed.

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