Saturday, August 30, 2008 View Comments
The Rev. Mac Hammond, founder of Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, told his congregation in a letter that an IRS investigation is "politically motivated," and part of "a very clear effort, on a national scale, to discredit, defame and intimidate ministries and preachers of what has been called the 'prosperity gospel.'"
In his first public comments about the IRS inquiry, Hammond, who heads one of the state's larger churches with nearly 10,000 members and reaches a greater audience through Sunday TV broadcasts, said that those "behind these attacks [are] enemies of the gospel."
"They are fearful not only of the moral imperative communicated by these ministries, but the growing wealth and influence of those constituencies," he wrote.
The IRS has filed a petition in U.S. District Court to force the church to answer a demand for detailed financial information. The church declined to comply with an IRS summons in March, arguing that the law states the request must come from a "high-ranking official" of the IRS.
Church leaders are scheduled to appear in court Oct. 2 to argue the case.
An IRS spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on current cases.
Hammond's mention of a national inquiry into churches like Living Word refers to a request by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, for six prosperity ministries to turn over financial records. Although he's not looking into Hammond's church, Grassley wants to see if the other six churches are avoiding taxes. Some have complied, others have refused, including Texas preacher Kenneth Copeland. Hammond sits on Copeland's board, and Copeland's son, John, serves on the board of the LWCC.
Hammond said opponents are trying to deter donors by calling into question "the motivation or integrity of the leadership."
A spokeswoman for Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, said that he is not targeting any particular doctrine; in fact, he had never heard of the prosperity gospel before he began his review of the ministries. Grassley's interest is in tax policy, not doctrine, and he has reviewed several other kinds of tax-exempt groups, she said.
In his letter to congregants, Hammond addressed an issue the IRS is questioning: his airplane. He said the church bought him the plane, which he then leased back to the church, calling it a benefit to the congregation. A nonprofit could not take a tax write-off to offset depreciation if the aircraft is sold, he said. So his ownership will save Living Word money if the plane is sold.
Personal loans to Hammond that were excused by the church were approved by the board and declared as compensation on which tax was paid, he wrote.
In defending his financial gains, Hammond wrote that he "had enough personal resource to do without a salary" for one or two years when he started his church, and that 75 percent of his wealth has come from "investment equities" beginning in the 1990s -- not church salary.
The Hammonds are the church's largest donors, giving more than $2.5 million over six years, he wrote. He is now liquidating "a substantial portion" of his assets to put into the church, if needed, Hammond said.
He also blamed the media for reporting on church issues.
"I rejoice in the certainty that you are moved only by the Word that is preached and not the secular media," he said.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008 View Comments
The man is the first of two people expected to testify this week that they had sex with Rodney Keith Boothe, 40, a former pastor at Greater Church of Deliverance on North Cherry Street, which also is known as Christ Cathedral Church of Deliverance. Boothe faces 42 sex-related charges.
The second person expected to testify is a 15-year-old boy whose family took in Boothe's family for a week in 2006 when the Boothes were kicked out of their home for not paying rent. The 15-year-old is expected to testify that the sex acts happened when he was 13 and 14.
The 18-year-old first met Boothe at a church in Wilmington, where the boy was living with a family member.
He moved in 2005 to Virginia, where he stayed with his grandmother. By then, Boothe had moved to the church in Winston-Salem and agreed to take him in. The boy was 15 at the time.
He said that at first he did not want Boothe to touch him.
"I didn't like it, but I just thought that if I kept on going it would stop," he said.
He said he later fell in love with Boothe. He would ask Boothe whether they were a couple. Boothe had a wife, two daughters and a son.
"When he said no, that kind of hurt because I felt in that situation that I was just being used for sex," the 18-year-old said.
The 42 charges that Boothe faces are: 12 counts of statutory sex offense with a child who is 13, 14 or 15; one count of attempted statutory sex offense; 14 counts of sexual activity by a substitute parent; one count of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor; 10 counts of indecent liberties with a child; and four counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor.
The 18-year-old said that many of the sexual conversations he had with Boothe were through cell-phone text messages. An aunt called Winston-Salem police after reading the text messages stored in the boy's phone. Boothe was arrested and has been in jail since June, 2007.
Prosecutors Kia Chavious and Pansy Glanton showed jurors those sexually explicit text messages yesterday, along with lewd picture messages that prosecutors say they believe that the two men exchanged.
When questioned by Paul James, who is Boothe's attorney, the 18-year-old said he agreed to stay with Boothe even though Boothe had touched him during a visit.
The trial is expected to continue into next week.
Related link: Preacher arrested
Friday, August 22, 2008 View Comments
Pastor Michael Guglielmucci spun gospel of lies
HE preached to thousands about his terminal illness and tugged at hearts with a hit song.
The problem is, the pastor wasn't dying at all.
Michael Guglielmucci, who inspired hundreds of thousands of young Christians with his terminal cancer "battle", has been exposed as a fraud.
Guglielmucci, whose parents established Edge Church International, an Assemblies of God church at O'Halloran Hill in Adelaide's southern suburbs, now is seeking professional help.
Earlier this year, Mr Guglielmucci released a hit song, Healer, which was featured on Sydney church Hillsong's latest album.
The song debuted at No. 2 on the ARIA charts.
It since has become an anthem of faith for believers, many of whom are suffering their own illness and were praying for a miracle for Mr Guglielmucci, who has claimed for two years to be terminally ill.
In one church performance that has attracted 300,000 hits on YouTube, he performs his hit song with an oxygen tube in his nose.
It appears Mr Guglielmucci, who was a pastor with one of Australia's biggest youth churches, Planetshakers, may even have deceived his own family.
Pastor told congregation he had cancer
Recorded hit song Healer to inspire people
He's a fraud "This news has come as a great shock to everyone including, it seems, his own wife and family," Hillsong general manager George Aghajanian said in an email to his congregation yesterday.
"Michael has confirmed that he is not suffering with a terminal illness and is seeking professional help in Adelaide with the support of his family. We are asking our church to pray for the Guglielmucci family during this difficult time."
The Australian Christian Church said Mr Guglielmucci's credentials immediately were suspended once he told the national executive that his cancer claims were "untrue".
"The national executive is taking this matter very seriously and is awaiting the results of medical tests before determining the full extent of the discipline that will be imposed upon him," vice president Alun Davies said.
"We are very concerned for the many people who have been or will be hurt by Michael's actions.
"We encourage all of our churches to pray for all those affected."
PASTOR Michael Guglielmucci has been told by church officials to report to police, who will investigate what has happened to money raised during his cancer deception.
The Australian Christian Churches told The Advertiser yesterday that it was auditing Mr Guglielmucci's bank accounts, which included money donated from people touched by his hit song Healer.
Mr Guglielmucci confessed his two-year fraudulent cancer battle at a national executive meeting of the ACC on Saturday, and was stripped of his credentials.
Edge Church International's executive pastor Jonathan Fontanarosa said Mr Guglielmucci had "made it clear that he is not sick".
"But we're waiting on further investigation to find out the full truth," he said. "The church is in shock . . . we were totally unaware of the situation."
It was decided at Saturday's meeting that a statement would be read on Mr Guglielmucci's behalf at churches around Australia this Sunday.
But an email sent on Wednesday from Sydney's Hillsong Church detailing the hoax was obtained by The Advertiser.
It also said Mr Guglielmucci's wife and family were unaware of the deception. The Melbourne-based preacher is in Adelaide, but has gone to ground.
His parents, who founded Edge Church International, an Assemblies of God church at Reynella, are assisting him while he seeks professional help.
The ACC has promised that all money raised deceptively will be returned or donated to charity.
The Assemblies of God, Australia's largest Pentecostal movement, adopted its new name of Australian Christian Churches in 2007.
The former pastor with one of Australia's biggest youth churches, Planetshakers, inspired hundreds of thousands of young Christians around the world as he performed with an oxygen tube in his nose.
Healer became an anthem of faith for believers, many of whom are suffering illnesses and were praying for Mr Guglielmucci.
The song, featured on Hillsong's latest album, debuted at No. 2 on the ARIA charts.
In a YouTube video, (no longer available) he tells how the news from the hospital that he had "quite an aggressive form of cancer" inspired his song. "I just went home. I knew I had to go home and needed to get alone with God," he says in the video.
"I walked into my studio at home and for some reason. . . I sat at a piano and began to worship.
"I sang that song from start to finish. I was crying. I just realised that God had given me an incredible gift and I realise that song was going to be my strength."
Church community sources said Mr Guglielmucci attended his medical appointments alone.
A scheduled appearance by him at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne this weekend has been cancelled.
While many in the church were embarrassed by the betrayal, others showed support on Facebook, where a page titled "We are STILL praying for you Mike Guglielmucci" was set up yesterday.
On August 21, 2008, Michael Guglielmucci, the composer of the track Healer from the album Saviour of the World and a former pastor of Planetshakers City Church, announced that, contrary to his earlier statments, he had not suffered from cancer during the previous two years. He also stated that close friends, family, and even his wife didn't know. Planetshakers City Church pastors, as well as Hillsong Church (where Michael was serving in the music ministry), released communications to church members confirming this.
In an email sent to the Planetshakers City Church congregation, Russell & Sam Evans wrote:
It is with great sadness that we send you this email. We wanted to tell you all in person but because others were being informed outside our church we felt it necessary to send you this correspondence. Michael Guglielmucci has informed us that he does not suffer from cancer, was never diagnosed with cancer, and has never suffered from the disease. This admission has come as a great shock to everyone including his Wife and family who had no knowledge of the matter. We know this will shock and hurt many of you and we offer you our support and prayers. Our pastoral team will be available to offer any assistance in regard to this situation. We are all saddened by this revelation and our prayers are with the Guglielmucci family. We would encourage you to take this situation to the Lord in prayer responding out of a heart of love, grace and truth. While it is difficult for all of us to understand why this happened we would encourage you all to a closer personal walk with our Lord Jesus.
Thursday, August 21, 2008 View Comments
The Paulding County Sheriff Office is investigating the charges against Barnes. Investigators say they are concerned there may be more victims. The arrest of a teacher came as a shock to members of the church who picked up their kids from school Wednesday afternoon.
"Anytime anything like that happens it always concerns you," said David Collins who was picking up his grandchild.
A woman who said her name was "Miss Birdsong' said "As a Christian, we need to just pray for her and that's what I'll do."
Barnes was charged Tuesday with two counts of statutory rape and two counts of child molestation for having sex with a 14-year old boy. Paulding County investigators are saying very little about the investigation because of its delicate nature. They did say that both the suspect Holly Barnes, and the victim, the 14-year-old boy, were affiliated with the church and school. Barnes is a teacher.
"I don't have the details as far as if it was a teacher-student relationship or anything like that," said Paulding County Sheriff Corporal Brandon Gurley.
Barnes is charged with having sex with the boy on two separate occasions in Paulding County. The church is in Cobb County near the Paulding County line. Corporal Gurley said the sexual acts took place in Paulding County, not at the church. Because of her position with the church they are concerned.
"Anytime we have an individual that is in contact with children and they are accused of having inappropriate contact or relations with children that automatically throws up a red flag," said Corporal Gurley.
Barnes is being held on $11,000 bond in the Paulding County jail. She was terminated from her teaching job at the church. Grace Baptist Church referred questions about Barne's role at the church to their Pastor Dr. Ken Martin. He has not answered repeated attempts to contact him.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 View Comments
Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Perry house this holiday season.
The evangelical parents of chart-topping singer Katy Perry have condemned their daughter's hit song "I Kissed a Girl" and are blaming the big city lights of Los Angeles for steering their little girl away from gospel music in favor of sex innuendo-laden pop.
"I hate the song," Perry's mother, Mary Hudson, is quoted by Daily Record. "It clearly promotes homosexuality and its message is shameful and disgusting. Katy knows how I feel. We are a very outspoken family."
Hudson, a pastor, said she was in "total shock" after hearing the song for the first time. "When it comes on the radio I bow my head and pray."
"I Kissed a Girl" is the second single from Perry's album "One of the Boys." Perry has said that the song is "about the magical beauty of a woman."
Her career kicked off in 2001 back when she was a Christian pop singer going by her real name, Katy Hudson. Her mom believes Katy "started to change" after traveling from their home in Santa Barbara to LA to meet with a producer.
"I was worried she'd start doing drugs and drinking alcohol. I still am. I spoke to her only recently. She said, 'I'm not going to turn into Amy Winehouse.'"
Perry's father is also a pastor, and he is said to have had "words" with his daughter about her skimpy outfits.
The parents obviously "cannot cut her out" of their lives, but Perry "knows we disagree strongly with what she is doing and the message she is promoting regarding homosexuality which the Bible clearly states is a sin."
"But the Bible also promotes understanding and forgiveness, which I keep reminding myself."
Mabank Police Chief Kyle McAfee said Ponder confessed to charges related to a 16-year-old male victim.
The assault allegedly occurred April 8 but was not reported until Aug. 8, according to reports.
The teenager is not a member of the church.
The Rev. Brent Tucker of First Baptist Church of Mabank, Chairman of the Deacons Randy Teague and Minister of Music Chris Sweet conducted a press conference at the church Thursday. The three released a statement on behalf of the church.
“We are deeply saddened by the circumstances that involve Josh Ponder prior to and during his employment at FBC Mabank,” the statement read. “We lift up in prayer his family and those who have been affected. The FBC Mabank does not condone these alleged actions. ...
“We have accepted the resignation of Ponder effective Aug. 14. We are in prayer for our youth and their parents at this time.”
Prior to his stint in Mabank, Ponder served as youth minister at First Baptist Church of Palestine from June 2001 to May 2007.
The Rev. Jay Abernathy, pastor of First Baptist Church of Palestine, was notified of Ponder’s arrest late last week and said the church would cooperate with police in the investigation, if asked.
“We are shocked and saddened by this incident, and are praying for everyone involved,” Abernathy said Monday afternoon. “We have made counselors available to our youth and families who may be hurting and will be available to anyone in our church and community who wants to talk.
“We are working to respond to everyone hurt by this.”
Representing the Palestine church’s deacon ministry board, Steve Jenkins mirrored Rev. Abernathy’s sentiments in a statement made by phone Monday.
“As a church, we are saddened by the news of (Josh’s) arrest,” Jenkins said. “We are thankful for the prompt response of the Mabank Police Department and will assist them in any way possible to see that justice is served.
“We respect the need for privacy and healing in the lives of those affected and pray that others will also.”
Ponder remains in the Kaufman County Law Enforcement Center charged with sexual assault of a child. Bail has been set at $200,000.
Mabank police are investigating possible instances of improper contact with other victims.
Saturday, August 16, 2008 View Comments
Two married youth leaders are accused of raping teenage girls. Police tell us there could be even more victims.
A sign on the door of the Lord's Disciples Church on Old Knoxville Highway in Maryville tells visitors all services and activities are canceled until further notice. This after two of their youth ministers are charged with eight counts of sexual battery and rape with 15-year-old girls.
"It's even more disturbing cause it's right here at home," Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp said.
Chief crisp says last Tuesday, three teens, their parents and a youth pastor came to police alleging sexual misconduct by church youth leaders Michael and Laura Salazar, both 35 years old, of Wrights Road in Louisville. After extensive interviews, police say four teens claim they allegedly took part in sex acts with the Salazars dating back to September 2007.
"When these types of crimes happen against children they're reluctant to talk about it," Crisp said. "We're proud of the courage they've presented and come forward and talked."
We briefly spoke to the pastor today outside the church. He says they're not trying to hide anything, they're just trying to figure out what's going on, but in the meantime services are canceled and police believe there may be more victims out there.
"We feel strongly about the evidence and anticipate there will be additional charges," Crisp said.
In the meantime, the Salazars are behind bars at Blount County jail.
The Salazars are set to appear in Blount County Sessions Court Friday at 9 a.m.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A Maryville church has closed it's doors indefinitely after a married couple, who are youth ministers at the church, are charged with sex crimes.
Michael Salazar, 35, is charged with three counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, and three counts of statutory rape by an authority figure.
Laura Lee Click Salazar, 35, is charged with one count of sexual battery by an authority figure, and one count of statutory rape by an authority figure.
Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp says this investigation began on Aug. 15 when three teen girls, their parents, and their youth pastor, accused the Salazar's of sexual misconduct.
That's when officials conducted an official investigation interviewing four teenage girls who say the Salazars took part in individual sex acts beginning in September 2007.
At the church, there is a note on the door saying they're closed until further notice.
Pastor Keith Briefly says his church is very hurt by this event.
Police Chief Crisp says the case is under investigation.
Chief Crisp says there may be more victims, and he is asking for them to come forward.
"Certainly it is sickening and troubling that this is going on anywhere, and especially in our neighborhood. it's even more disturbing, right here at home, but we've done a very diligent investigation."
Michael Salazar's bond is set for $300,000, Laura Lee Click Salazar's bond is set for $100,000.
Thursday, August 14, 2008 View Comments
The Sheriff's office says they have more property crimes occur when the economy is down, but a psychologists says that's not enough reason for someone to resort to crime.
Leesburg First Baptist Pastor Bobby Harrell describes his former associate pastor, Jim Creason, as a good Christian man, with a big heart. He says something must have snapped to cause Creason to use a gun to rob the Heritage Bank Friday.
"He obviously was in his particular case he was very desperate, his world had pretty well crumbled he was in a desperate situation," said Lee County Chief Deputy Dennis Parker.
It's these desperate financial situations that are driving property crimes, like metal thefts and car break-ins up.
"Property crimes always historically have gone up during economic downturns when people have lost their jobs, there's not a lot of work available," Parker said.
Psychologists say lots of people have fallen on tough times, but don't resort to criminal behavior, there has to be something more to cause the criminal behavior that can start at childhood.
"Some people will go to that point because they target people that they know when they're in the midst of some financial or personal hardship," says Insight Forensic Psychologist Dr. Cheryl Kaiser.
Creason knew many of the people at Heritage Bank, his wife being a former bank employee, and he called them by name during the robbery. He wore no mask.
"Maybe there are some feelings that it's less likely to be caught, feelings that they're less likely to be turned in, feelings that they're more likely to get trust from the people they're going after," Kaiser said.
At his former church, First Baptist of Leesburg, they said they would have been willing to help Creason had he only asked for it.
Jim Creason is Music Minister at a church in Edison. He's been charged with two counts of armed robbery.
Sunday, August 10, 2008 View Comments
A U.S. District Court jury in Minneapolis found preacher Neulan Midkiff guilty on August 1 on all 21 counts of mail and wire fraud and tax evasion, as his family sobbed in the courtroom.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Rank then asked that Midkiff be taken into custody immediately because he was a flight risk, and U.S. District Judge Michael Davis agreed. Midkiff family members then began shouting and were moved out of the courtroom by sheriff's deputies. One collapsed outside the courtroom.
"Mr. Rank, oh my God, what kind of person are you?" yelled one of Midkiff's daughters. "God have mercy on you."
Midkiff, 66, got many of his friends and neighbors involved in an Atlanta company called Horizon Enterprise, which promised high returns on an overseas banking deal but was actually a pyramid scheme that took in as much as $390 million. The scam paid investors "interest" using their own principal or money from new investors.
He also ran offshoots, Central Financial Services and Joshua Tree Group, that scammed 519 people from Minnesota and Louisiana of $30 million.
Midkiff had testified that he was duped by Horizon's founder, Travis Correll, and didn't know he was involved in anything illegal. Correll, of Atlanta, pleaded guilty to charges against him and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
While waiting for the jury to come back, Midkiff told the Star Tribune: "I thought [the investment] was a blessing. I'm sorry people believed in me because I believed in it. Nothing has ever happened in my family like this."
The jury deliberated about four hours before finding the Louisiana native guilty of eight counts of mail fraud, eight counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy and four counts of failure to file tax returns.
Midkiff faces a potential maximum penalty of 20 years in prison on each fraud count, five years on the conspiracy count and one year on each tax count. Sentencing has been scheduled for Oct. 1.
Midkiff sat passively while each count was read. Members of his family held hands and began sobbing as the decision was read.
As deputies began to handcuff Midkiff, family members began shouting and several plainclothes deputies scattered across the courtroom quickly rose to remove the family. The attorneys exited on a freight elevator.
"This is not justice," yelled his wife, Donna.
Midkiff founded Shiloh Church in Forest Lake after moving to Minnesota in 1994. He named himself "apostle" of the church and named his wife "prophetess."
According to court testimony, Donna also had access to some of the accounts. Other members of Midkiff's family, including brothers and sons, also recruited investors to the scheme and were paid for their efforts. Donna and son David are named in a lawsuit by some of the investors.
When the scheme collapsed, the victims were farmers and factory workers, janitors and retirees. They put their faith and money in the hands of Midkiff and his partner, Jerry Watkins, who has pleaded guilty to fraud and testified against Midkiff.
Victims say the pyramid scheme took their savings, pensions, mortgages and even a family farm.
One, Norman Tetrault, gave Midkiff $45,000 near the end of the scam.
"Well, he got what he deserved," Tetrault said after learning of the verdict. "[He was] like Satan, playing tricks on people. But is he going to give all the money back? Someone has it."
Midkiff, a former barber, roofer and construction worker who lived in a mobile home when he moved to Minnesota, bought a $1.3 million lake home, luxury cars and a motor home, and paid himself about $3 million. The SEC has frozen his assets. Before being taken into custody, Midkiff was living in an apartment and on Social Security, his lawyer said.
In closing arguments, Tracy Perzel, assistant U.S. attorney, said Midkiff's claim that he didn't know he was perpetrating a crime was "willful blindness" designed to distance himself from the illegal activity.
"Religion for some people was very important [in the scam]," she said. "It helped them overcome the idea that this was too good to be true."
Dave Willis, one of dozens of victims in Louisiana, said "there are going to be a lot of very happy people down here. When you are talking 30, 40 thousand dollars to a country boy, that's a lot of money.
"When you do that in God's name, well, God is going to get you," he said.
This case is the result of an investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service - Criminal Investigation Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tracy L. Perzel and Tim Rank.
STORY LINK | FBI PRESS RELEASE
Saturday, August 09, 2008 View Comments
Spartanburg County Dispatchers received a 911 call from Freda Crews at 7:16 p.m. on the date.
From Crew's website: Dr. William R. Crews is a native of Starke, Florida. In his early life he was a professional pool hustler who later became an alcoholic. After being saved out of a life of deep sin, the Lord called him to preach the Gospel and to teach the Word of God. Freda told a deputy who responded to the scene that William came to the house drunk while she was sleeping. Freda said she and William began to argue and she came to fear for her safety.
She became so frightened, she told officers, that she locked herself in a bathroom with a gun. She then called her daughter and told her to call 911.
Freda told the deputy that it wasn’t the first time William had been violent with her, but it was the first time she’d called. Sheriff’s Office reports stated there were no visible marks either Freda or William.
William admitted to officers that he’d been drinking and also admitted there was a gun in the dash of his car.
STORY LINK | SERMON | STREAMING FAITH
Thursday, August 07, 2008 View Comments
The arrests, which followed a double stabbing in a brawl with the Hells Angels at a Newport Beach bar July 27, was the latest brush with the law for the group of black-leather-clad bikers, which has straddled the line between Christian outreach group and outlaw motorcycle gang.
By late Wednesday, authorities had arrested 10 members of the Set Free Soldiers and the Hells Angels during raids in Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Rancho Santa Margarita that started at 5 a.m., said Sgt. Evan Sailor of the Newport Beach Police Department.
The operation involved more than 150 officers, including SWAT teams and federal drug enforcement agents.
Seven members of the Set Free Soldiers, including leader Phil Aguilar, 60, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and are each being held on $1-million bail, police said.
Three members of the Hells Angels are also in custody, including John Phillip Lloyd, a 41-year-old Costa Mesa man charged with assault with a deadly weapon. The other two were arrested on drug charges.
Others are still being sought on arrest warrants.
The arrests stemmed from a 15-person brawl at the Newport Beach bar Blackie's by the Sea, where Set Free members allegedly stabbed two Hells Angels members.
During the brawl, the Hells Angels also allegedly struck one of the Set Free members in the head with a pool ball.
On its website, which appeared to have been taken down Wednesday evening, Set Free Soldiers call themselves "a group of men who love Jesus and love to ride hard."
"We are not your normal motorcycle club," the statement reads. "Some say we are too good for the bad guys, and too bad for the good guys."
Aguilar, a Harley-riding ex-convict and former drug addict who served time for child abuse in the 1970s, converted to Christianity in prison. He became the founding pastor of Set Free Worldwide Ministries in 1982. But he and his ministry have been highly controversial.
His MySpace.com page describes Aguilar as pastor or "the Chief" of the group. Next to his photo is the statement: "Sinner or Saint you be the judge!"
Police said that through its ministry, the gang recruited people discharged from parole, state prison and county jails and has an outreach program for convicted felons.
Although Set Free has been praised for its streetwise approach, its detractors say it is an autocratic organization that exerts too much control over its members by confiscating their belongings and forcing them to break off relationships with friends and families.
Law enforcement officials and former members say that the group has devolved into a motorcycle gang like any other, and that it has ties to the Mongols, an outlaw biker gang that has engaged in warfare with the Hells Angels.
Set Free chapters in the Midwest have provided security at Mongol funerals, said Steve Cook, an Independence, Mo., police officer and president of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Assn.
"It is an outlaw club," Cook said. "Their supposed Christian affiliation doesn't change my opinion."
A former Set Free member said Aguilar has performed Mongol weddings and officiated at their funerals. The man, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said he left the group about five years ago when Aguilar began taking the church in a new direction and started recruiting tattooed bikers. Some members carry guns, he said.
"Phil always wanted to be somebody in the outlaw biker world, and he's been hiding behind the cross for a long time," the former member said. "When he began recruiting members, he figured the badder they were the better."
Members of other Christian motorcycle groups said they are afraid Set Free's troubles will give them all a bad name.
"It puts all of us Christian bikers in a negative light, that all of a sudden we're gangs too," said Radawn McKinney, vice president of a motorcycle ministry based in Orange. "We're not all thugs and don't have gang behavior. We have to go out and do God's work."
Despite Set Free's hard-core reputation -- its website features videos of members in fistfights -- some who have worked with the group were surprised at the gravity of the charges.
Sandie Moore, 52, a retired nurse who lives in Fountain Valley, said Wednesday's arrests shocked her. She said she had worked with Aguilar's group on charity events for organizations such as the Children's Hospital of Orange County, where they had provided security.
"What I saw today is far, far, far from how I know them," Moore said. "I can't believe they are being portrayed as thugs. I think maybe some of them who haven't corrected their ways got rowdy, but their behavior is totally contrary to how they acted in front of me."
Carol Cantiberos, 47, of Buena Park, a Set Free member who lived at one of its group homes in Anaheim for three weeks and goes to its church services every Saturday, said Aguilar and the gang helped her stay sober for the last 86 days.
"He doesn't ask you about your history or what you've done bad; he just accepts you with open arms," she said. "I don't believe he would do anything unless he was protecting himself, because he's turned around."
But news of the raid was no surprise to Rose Lambie, 65, who lives three houses down from one of the four South Archer Street homes in Anaheim that were targeted. Aguilar owns several houses in the 300 block of South Archer.
Aguilar, she said, is well-known and the gang had "taken over the neighborhood in a lot of ways."
She said the gang has a history of intimidating neighbors, who had met with one another and with police to raise concerns about their behavior.
Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara who featured Set Free in his 1992 book "Churches That Abuse," said the group is a "control-centered, authoritarian organization" that has displayed cult-like behavior, even as it cozied up to mainstream evangelical groups and Aguilar appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network programs.
"They feel they're reaching a kind of person the larger religious community can't reach," Enroth said. "A lot of people on the margins of society may have been helped, but they are not always aware of the tentacles that an organization like this can have on their lives."