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Christian bikers' pastor enters plea

September 26, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

The pastor of a Christian motorcycle club pleaded not guilty Thursday to felony weapons and gang charges in a case that hinges on whether he heads a church ministry or an outlaw biker gang.

Phillip Aguilar, 61, pastor of the Anaheim-based Set Free Soldiers, pleaded not guilty to charges of being a felon in possession of a handgun, ammunition and brass knuckles, and of being an active gang participant. Four other members of the group, including his son, Matthew, 29, pleaded not guilty to weapons and gang charges, and another pleaded not guilty to attempted murder.

The charges stem from a July bar fight in Newport Beach between the Set Free Soldiers and the Hells Angels in which two Hells Angels were stabbed. In a predawn raid in August, authorities seized dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition at four homes owned by Set Free on Archer Street in Anaheim.

Police and prosecutors said the 25-year-old group has evolved into a criminal motorcycle gang in recent years, but Set Free maintains it is a Christian ministry that helps rehabilitate ex-convicts and recovering drug addicts.

On its website, Set Free Soldiers describes itself as "a group of men who love Jesus and love to ride hard. We are not your normal motorcycle club. Some say we are too good for the bad guys, and too bad for the good guys."

Phillip Aguilar, who is free on $50,000 bail, appeared in court wearing black, plastic-rimmed glasses, with a web-like tattoo around his left eye and a dyed-blond buzz cut.

His attorney, Doug Myers, said he does not think the prosecution will be able to prove Set Free is a gang, saying its members don't have "the background that you traditionally see in gang cases."

The court rejected the prosecution's request to bar Aguilar from associating with members of Set Free outside his immediate family, but did order that members of the group could not possess "dangerous or deadly weapons."

Myers also disputed the weapons charges, saying the brass knuckles were found in Matthew Aguilar's dresser drawer and the gun in his other son's drawer. "Phil wasn't aware of them," Myers said.

Phillip Aguilar served time for child abuse in the 1970s and converted to Christianity in prison. He founded Set Free Worldwide Ministries in 1982.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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