Police: Iowa shooting that killed 2 at youth program was targeted

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The killing of two students at an alternative education program designed to help at-risk teens in Des Moines was a targeted attack, police said, and an 18-year-old has been charged.

The teenagers killed in Monday’s Starts Right Here program shooting were both males, aged 18 and 16, police said. The program’s founder, 49-year-old William Holmes, was seriously injured and required surgery.

Holmes, an activist and rapper who goes by the stage name Will Keeps, has had a life of gangs and violence and is a youth welfare worker in Des Moines, according to information from a regional community development group.

Preston Walls, 18, of Des Moines, has been charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, police said. He was also charged with involvement in a criminal gang, and authorities said the shooting was the result of an ongoing gang dispute. Walls was released under supervision for a gun charge and had his ankle monitor removed 16 minutes before the shooting, police said.

“The incident was definitely targeted. It wasn’t accidental. There was nothing accidental about that,” said Sgt. Paul Parizek.

Walls and all three victims were in the program Monday when Walls entered a common area where Holmes and the two students were, police said. Walls had in his possession a 9mm pistol with an extended ammo magazine, they said.

Holmes attempted to escort Walls out of the area, but Walls backed off, “pulled the pistol and began shooting at both teenage victims,” ​​police said in a statement. Holmes stood nearby and was also shot, and Walls ran away, police said.

Intervening officers 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 other two people in the vehicle with Walls were also teenagers. Police said they were still in custody as of Monday night.

“That brings a total of five families of teenage gun violence victims right here in our capital on a Monday afternoon in minutes,” Cownie said at Monday’s city council meeting.

Cownie said he spoke to the victims’ families. “But there is little that can be said to ease her pain. Nothing that can be said to bring them back, those who were so senselessly killed,” he said.

Walls has yet to appear in court. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had an attorney speaking on his behalf.

Starts Right Here is an educational program serving at-risk youth in grades 9-12 and is affiliated with the Des Moines School District.

“The school is designed to fill the gap and help the children who need help most,” Parizek said.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership, the economic and community development organization for the area, says on its website that Keeps came to Des Moines from Chicago about 20 years ago, where he “lived in a world of gangs and violence” before undergoing healing found music. In 2021 he founded Starts Right Here.

The partnership said the Starts Right Here movement “seeks to encourage and educate young people living in disadvantaged and oppressive circumstances through the use of arts, entertainment, music, hip-hop and other programs.” The program mediates Financial literacy, as well as communication and interview skills.

The school’s website states that 70% of the students it serves are from minority groups and it has had 28 graduates since its inception. The school district said the program is serving 40 to 50 students at any given time.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who serves on an advisory board to Starts Right Here, said she was “shocked and saddened to hear about the shooting.”

According to the program’s website, Des Moines Police Commissioner Dana Wingert is on the board of directors of Starts Right Here.

“I’ve seen firsthand how hard Will Keeps and his staff work to help at-risk children through this alternative education program,” Reynolds said in a statement. “My heart breaks for them, these children and their families.”

The shooting was the sixth this year at a US school in which someone was injured or killed, but the first with fatalities, according to Education Week, which tracks school shootings. According to the website, there were 51 school shootings last year that resulted in injuries or deaths, and that number has risen to 150 since 2018. The worst school shooting last year killed 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Another shooting outside a Des Moines high school last March killed one student and seriously injured two other teenagers. Ten people, all aged between 14 and 18 at the time of the shooting, were subsequently charged. Five of them have pleaded guilty to various charges.