The killing of two students at an alternative education program designed to help at-risk teenagers in Des Moines was a targeted attack, police said, and an 18-year-old has been charged.
The teenagers killed in Monday’s shooting at the Starts Right Here program were both males, ages 18 and 16, police said. The program’s founder, 49-year-old William Holmes, was seriously injured and underwent surgery.
Holmes, an activist and rapper who goes by the stage name Will Keeps, had left a life of gangs and violence and has been dedicated to helping youth in Des Moines, according to information from a regional community development group.
Preston Walls, 18, of Des Moines, was charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, police said. He was also charged with criminal gang participation, and authorities said the shooting was the result of an ongoing gang dispute. Walls was on supervised release for a weapons charge and had removed his ankle monitor 16 minutes before the shooting, police said.
“The incident was definitely targeted. It was not random. There was nothing random about this,” Sgt. Paul Parizek said.
Walls and all three victims were at the program Monday when Walls entered a common area where Holmes and the two students were, police said. Walls had a 9mm handgun with an extended ammunition magazine in his possession, they said.
Holmes tried to escort Walls away from the area, but Walls pulled away, “pulled the handgun and began to shoot both teenage victims,” police said in a statement. Holmes was standing nearby and was also shot, and Walls ran away, police said.
Officers who responded saw a suspicious vehicle leaving the area and stopped it. But Walls ran away and was arrested a short time later. Police said a 9mm handgun was found nearby. The ammunition magazine, which has a capacity of 31 rounds, contained three.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said the two other people in the vehicle with Walls are also teenagers. They were taken into custody and released without charges.
“That brings a total of five families of teenagers affected by youth gun violence in a matter of minutes on a Monday afternoon, right here in our capital city,” Cownie said at Monday’s City Council meeting.
Cownie said he spoke to the victims’ family members. “But there is little one can say that will lessen their pain. Nothing that can be said to bring them back, those who were killed so senselessly,” he said.
Walls has not yet made a court appearance. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney to speak on his behalf.
Starts Right Here is an educational program that helps at-risk youth in grades 9-12 and is affiliated with the Des Moines school district.
“The school is designed to pick up the slack and help the kids who need help the most,” Parizek said.
The Greater Des Moines Partnership, the economic and community development organization for the region, says on its website that Keeps came to Des Moines about 20 years ago from Chicago, where he “lived in a world of gangs and violence” before finding healing through music. He founded Starts Right Here in 2021.
The partnership said the Starts Right Here movement “seeks to encourage and educate young people living in disadvantaged and oppressive circumstances using the arts, entertainment, music, hip hop and other programs.” The program teaches financial literacy, along with communication and job interview skills.
The school’s website says 70% of the students it serves are members of minority groups, and it has had 28 graduates since it began. The school district said the program serves 40 to 50 students at any given time.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, who serves on an advisory board for Starts Right Here, said she was “shocked and saddened to hear about the shooting.”
Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert is on the Starts Right Here board, according to the program’s website.
“I’ve seen first-hand how hard Will Keeps and his staff works to help at-risk kids through this alternative education program,” Reynolds said in a statement. “My heart breaks for them, these kids and their families.”
The shooting was the sixth at a school in the U.S. this year in which someone was injured or killed, but the first with fatalities, according to Education Week, which tracks school shootings. The website said there were 51 school shootings last year involving injuries or deaths, and there have been 150 since 2018. In the worst school shooting last year, 21 people were killed in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
In a separate shooting outside a Des Moines high school last March, one student was killed and two other teens were badly injured. Ten people, who were all between the ages of 14 and 18 at the time of the shooting, were charged afterward. Five of them have pleaded guilty to various charges.
Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Associated Press writers Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri, and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this report.