NEW YORK (AP) — A wealthy Missouri man posing as "Secret Santa" stunned New Yorkers on Thursday, handing $100 bills to many in Staten Island who had lost everything to Superstorm Sandy.
The Kansas City businessman is giving away $100,000 this holiday season, and spent the day in New Jersey and New York giving away thousands. But he says money is not the issue.
"The money is not the point at all," said the anonymous benefactor as he walked up to surprised Staten Island residents and thrust crisp bills into their hands. "It's about the random acts of kindness. I'm just setting an example, and if 10 percent of the people who see me emulate what I'm doing, anybody can be a Secret Santa!"
A police motorcade with sirens took him across the borough, passing a church ripped from its foundations and homes surrounded by debris. At a nearby disaster center run by volunteers, a woman quietly collected free food and basic goods.
"Has anyone given you any money?" he asked her.
"No," replied Carol Hefty, a 72-year-old retiree living in a damaged home.
"Here," he said, slipping the money into her hand.
"But this isn't real money!" said Hefty, glancing at the red "Secret Santa" stamped onto the $100.
"It is, and it's for you," he tells her.
She breaks down weeping and hugs him.
And so it went, again and again.
Secret Santa started his daylong East Coast visit with stops in Elizabeth, N.J. Keeping close watch over the cash handouts was his security entourage — police officers in uniform from New York and New Jersey, plus FBI agents and former agents from various states. Some have become supporters, wearing red berets marked with the word "elf" and assisting "Santa" to choose locations where people are most in need. He himself wears an "elf" cap and a red top, plus blue jeans.
The group must choose stops carefully, and refrain from simply appearing outdoors in a neighborhood, lest they be mobbed by people hearing that cash is being handed out.
At a stop at a Staten Island Salvation Army store, one woman is looking over a $4 handbag. "But you get $100!" he tells her, offering the bill.
"Are you serious?" said Prudence Onesto, her eyes widening. "Really?"
"Secret Santa," he deadpans, breaking into a broad grin.
The 55-year-old unemployed woman opened her arms and offered him a hug.
An aisle over, 41-year-old Janice Kennedy is overwhelmed: She received four $100 bills.
Unemployed with a 2-year-old daughter, she lost her home in the storm and lives with her boyfriend. The money will go toward Christmas presents and her toddler's next birthday.
"You're not alone. God bless you!" the Missouri stranger tells Phillip and Lisa Morris, a couple in their 30s whose home was badly damaged — but now had an extra $300 in cash for rebuilding.
Secret Santa took up the holiday tradition from a close Kansas City friend, Larry Stewart, who for years handed out bills each December to unsuspecting strangers in thrift stores, food pantries and shelters. Stewart died in 2007 after giving away more than $1 million to strangers in mostly $100 bills.
The current Secret Santa will not divulge his name. Nor does he allow his face to be photographed. But he said he's been to cities across America, from San Diego to Chicago to Charlotte, N.C.
A reporter asked whether he might be a sort of Warren Buffett of Kansas City. He smiled mysteriously and said only that he admires Buffett for his philanthropy. "And I hope I give all my money away before I die."
Then, as suddenly as he arrived, the generous stranger left for the airport and home, riding in the volunteer motorcade he jokingly calls "my sleigh," zipping with ease through red lights and city traffic.