By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
According to Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney’s office, two Set Free members, including the knife-wielding Quiñones, admitted in their plea agreements the motorcycle club was actually a criminal enterprise. “The inference is that Mr. Aguilar is a criminal street-gang member,” Schroeder says. “We had the evidence to prove that but decided for trial reasons that we didn’t want to use that evidence at this time.”
Although he’s one of Aguilar’s fiercest critics, Calvary Chapel’s Fong never believed for a second that Aguilar intentionally picked a fight with the Hells Angels, he says. “I don’t think he would ever have anyone stabbed. I think if someone tried to hurt their pastor, someone in Set Free would stab someone, and that’s self-defense, and I know the Hells Angels are bullies,” Fong says. “Phil Aguilar isn’t crazy. He’s an egotistical man, and I think he’s been broken, which is good. But he can still do good in the community if he’s a real Christian.”
* * *
On a recent morning, a rainy mist settles over the Set Free compound. Despite the overcast skies, Aguilar is dressed in a T-shirt bearing the logo of the Set Free Soldiers and his eyes are invisible behind his trademark black sunglasses. About 90 minutes into an interview with the Weekly, there’s a loud screech of rubber followed by the crunch of metal upon metal. Aguilar winces at the noise and jogs to the front of his house, where Matthew is already standing.
Thirty feet away, a gray pickup truck sits in the intersection with its front end smashed by a Chrysler sedan that was making a left turn. Aguilar checks with the driver, a stunned-looking middle-aged Latino in a cowboy hat, to make sure he’s okay. He asks Matthew to see if he or the other driver needs any help, and then he walks back to the patio to resume the interview. A few minutes later, Matthew comes jogging over, laughing and shaking his head. “The guys that caused that crash were undercover cops,” he says. “They’re all standing out there with the cops who arrived, saying that they made the turn because they were following a suspect.”
Despite the obvious humor (Aguilar had just finished talking about how often police roll up and down his street), Matthew isn’t laughing much these days. “It’s hard now because I have an arrest on my record,” he says. “People think twice about working with you.” Matthew used to get work making hip-hop soundtracks for Toyota and McDonald’s commercials. “I haven’t heard from them since the raid,” he says. “This week, I’m making a brochure for a metal-welding company so I don’t have to work at Home Depot or something.”
The Blackie’s incident and Aguilar’s subsequent arrest also killed what would have been Set Free’s biggest publicity coup ever: a proposed A&E reality-television show about him called Saint or Sinner. The network had already paid six figures to have a pilot episode produced, but it pulled the plug after the raid. Meanwhile, Aguilar had to sell two of the buildings that used to house members of his church to pay for his legal expenses. The church now meets at the banquet room of a nearby hotel.
“Everybody thinks I’m outlaw,” he says. “I was in Huntington Beach last week for a surf contest, and a large majority of the people who saw me said they thought I was locked up this whole time. We have a record of 30 years of no violence, just this one incident. What happened was an injustice. They got the wrong guy.”
This article appeared in print as "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 crimina."