Possible Free Groceries Promotion Causes Chaotic Scene

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI)-- The prospect of $500 worth of free groceries brought out a crowd so large in north St. Louis on Tuesday, police had to be called the disperse the group.

"We are not going home. We've been here all morning and we are not leaving until we get something," said one of the hundreds who began lining up before dawn to sign up for the giveaway.

"Somebody decided to give something away for free and it got out of control. They had no organization and they definitely did not consult with the police department before they did it," said Lt. Dan Coll of the St. Louis Police Department. "They've been shut down."

It was supposed to be a simple debit card promotion, but what organizers did not anticipate was the unbridled reaction generated in a sour economy by just two words -- free food.

"When you hear free, who ain't gonna come to free, right?" said Jeanene McCrary, who also came to participate. "Free is my middle name."

The crowds began building before dawn outside the St. Louis Powerhouse Church, at Warne and West Florissant, but according the officials of the church, it was not directly involved with the promotion although it was organized by the church`s administrator, Howard Walker, and held near the building`s front door.

People were told if they filled out an application for a prepaid Visa, giving only their name, address, phone number and email,  they would be signed up for the card, which costs $1 a month to maintain, and would arrive in the mail accompanied by a voucher for $500 worth of groceries.

Walker said he had only worked for the company which sponsored the promotion for a few days, and had held a similar sign up event on Monday without any problems.  By the time the crowd was dispersed on Tuesday, Walker said 5,000 applications had been filled out.  Walker said he would be paid 75 cents for each application generated by the promotion.

The promotions company, which Walker identified as AMP LLC., Contracting is affiliated with a roofing company in Alabama, run by a man named Gordon Cooper, who said he could not comment on the promotion and referred all inquiries to the PR department up Upside Visa, the company offering the prepaid cards.

In the meantime, a planned third day of giveaways Wednesday has been suspended.

No one from Upside Visa returned a call for comment.

FOX 2 spent the day looking into this chaotic promotion, who is behind it and did anyone break the law?

There are several players in this story from the local organizer of the event to the out of town promotions company that supposedly sponsored it to the company behind the pre-paid Visa cards.

Here's what we know:

The local guy signing people up for the cards and promising the food vouchers still has no answer on where those vouchers are coming from.

His cell phone voicemail box is full and is not accepting any new messages.

The man running Alabama-based Advanced Marketing Promotions LLC  hung up on FOX 2 when we called Tuesday afternoon saying he had already given FOX 2 all of the information he had, which was only no comment.

As for the company issuing the pre-paid Visa-branded cards, it's called Upside. We couldn't get a live person on the phone there, either, though the Better Business Bureau says it has no complaints of the type that happened in St. Louis Tuesday.

Could this be an identity theft phishing ring? Probably not. The application for the pre-paid cards doesn't ask for social security numbers or birthdates.

So Is this just a promotion gone wild? It appears that way. As of Tuesday night we still have no idea if anyone will actually get their prepaid cards or their food vouchers.

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