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No jail sentence for founder of Christian motorcycle club accused in Newport Beach brawl with Hells Angels

May 18, 2010 |  4:55 pm

The founding pastor of a Christian motorcycle club who was originally charged with street terrorism for his role in a 2008 brawl in Newport Beach with the Hells Angels has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and been sentenced to probation.

Philip Aguilar, 62, was sentenced Thursday and given credit for time he’d already spent in jail. He pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of a prohibited person owning ammunition.

In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop three felony weapons and street-terrorism charges.

The plea brought to a close a case that highlighted the controversial Christian ministry's descent into what prosecutors alleged was a criminal enterprise.

The charges stemmed from a July 2008 bar fight on the waterfront in Newport Beach between the Set Free Soldiers and the Hells Angels, a brawl that ended with two stabbings and one man being pelted with a billiard ball.

In a predawn raid in August 2008, authorities seized dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition at four homes on Archer Street in Anaheim owned by Set Free.

Aguilar served prison time for child abuse in the 1970s, and as a convicted felon is prohibited from having a firearm and ammunition.

He converted to Christianity in prison and founded Set Free Worldwide Ministries in 1982.

Police and prosecutors contend that the group evolved into a criminal motorcycle gang in recent years, but Set Free describes itself as a Christian ministry that ministers to ex-convicts and recovering drug addicts.

Several members of the Anaheim-based group, including Aguilar's son Matthew, have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the brawl and subsequent raids.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss felony charges against Aguilar for a variety of reasons, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Erik Petersen.

“When you boiled it down to Phil Aguilar with what we could probably actually prove, we had one bullet in a room,” Petersen said. “Given all the working parts in this case, given legal issues that we had to work out, given that confidential informants were used in this case, we thought that a misdemeanor charge would be best for all parties.”

But Set Free saw the dismissed charges as a vindication.

“The main battleground is over whether his organization is a criminal street gang or not, and all of those charges were dismissed,” said Aguilar's attorney, Doug Meyers, adding that Aguilar agreed to plead guilty to the misdemeanor because he “just wanted to close the books on this and move on with his life.”

Aguilar celebrated the plea agreement through Twitter postings.

“Guilty of possesion of 1 bullet!” he wrote Thursday. “All charges dropped thank u jesus.”

-- Tony Barboza