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KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - You better watch out 'cause Santa Claus is coming to town -- with a wad of $100 bills.
Someone dressed as Santa has been sighted in poor neighborhoods of Kansas City in the past week giving away cash to unsuspecting strangers, escorted by police and a crew of "elves."
The anonymous benefactor took over from Larry Stewart, the original Secret Santa, who gave away over $1.5 million over 26 years before dying of cancer in 2007, according to Stewart friend and Kansas City Fire Department Captain Ray Wynn.
Wynn is now part of the Society of Secret Santas, an organization that helps others who want to give away their cash anonymously as Santa Claus. Stewart, who was once broke but ultimately made a fortune in the cable television industry, trained other wannabe Santas.
Secret Santas are operating in St. Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Detroit, Tulsa and Charlotte, Wynn said.
"People are struggling out there," Wynn said on Wednesday in an interview. "There's never been a better time to give out money than now and we are all carrying on Larry's tradition."
"Larry provided the blueprint and I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be part of this tradition," Wynn said.
The new Kansas City Santa once worked as one of Stewart's "elves" and was prepared to give away about $40,000, helping the homeless, the ill and the poor, Wynn said.
"He was in here a week ago, handing out his money to shoppers," Pam Roseburgh of the St. Vincent De Paul thrift store in Kansas City said.
The store provides winter coats to the homeless and one man was on his way out with a coat when the Secret Santa stopped him and offered $50 for the coat. When the man turned him down, Santa smiled and peeled off three $100 bills, telling the man to keep the coat and the money, Roseburgh said.
About a dozen people at the store received money, including a woman whose house had burned down, she said.
"Everyone was very excited. We are in a low income neighborhood and the money comes in very handy," she said.
Reporting by Bruce Olson; Editing by Andrew Stern