The story broke today that authorities in Orange County arrested six members of the Set Free Soldiers Christian motorcycle gang and charged them with conspiracy to commit murder. Phil Aguilar, leader of the Set Free Soldiers and founding pastor of the Set Free Worldwide Ministries movement, was among those arrested.
During my multi-year investigation into the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Aguilar’s name came up often. The convicted felon (I was told of the charges, but never confirmed them so I won’t repeat them here; but I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t in prison for shoplifting). Aguilar had close ties to the Tustin-based network, which is the world’s largest religious broadcaster.
He had been a semi-regular on-air guest and at one point was given his own show. Aguilar also served with TBN co-founder Paul Crouch on the board of the National Minority Television Network, an organization that federal officials called a sham TBN used to get around limits on television station ownership.
John Casoria, TBN’s in-house counsel and nephew of TBN co-founder Jan Crouch, has represented Aguilar. And Aguilar ran a drug treatment facility in the early 1990s at a TBN-owned ranch in Texas.
On-air, Jan Crouch called Aguilar “the closest thing to Jesus” she ever saw and once declared that those who didn’t give money to Set Free were going to Hell, according to a 1995 edition of the Christian Sentinel.
Several observers have wondered over the years why TBN had maintained a close relationship with Aguilar and his ministry, which has been criticized in print and by former members as being an abusive cult. And now the “closest thing to Jesus” is being held in jail on $1 million bail for allegedly participating in a 15-person barroom brawl — police say it was Set Free Soldiers vs. Hell’s Angels — in Newport Beach and trying to kill someone.
What a story. More, I’m sure, to come.