2 students dead and nonprofit founder injured

DES MOINES, Iowa, —  Two teenage students were killed Monday and a man was seriously injured in what police said was a targeted shooting at an alternative educational program in Des Moines, Iowa, designed to keep at-risk youth away from trouble.

Authorities confirmed Monday that one man had been charged in the shooting, and two other people remained in custody. Preston Walls, 18, of Des Moines, was charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder for the shooting at the Starts Right Here program. He was also charged with criminal gang participation.

Des Moines Police spokesperson Sgt. Paul Parizek said Starts Right Here founder and CEO, Will Holmes, was seriously injured and remains hospitalized as of Monday evening.

Parizek said the wounded students aged 16 and 18 were found in very critical condition and that officers performed CPR on them. They were taken to a hospital, where they died.

Police said Walls and all three victims were at the school on Monday when Walls entered a common area where Holmes and the two students were. Walls had a 9mm handgun with an extended ammunition magazine in his possession, police said, though they did not specify if he was displaying the weapon.

“Walls, and both deceased victims, are known gang members, belonging to opposing gangs, and evidence indicates that these crimes were committed as a result of an ongoing gang dispute,” Parizek said in the release. He did not elaborate on the evidence that links the shootings to rival gangs.

Based on a witness description, police stopped a vehicle near MacRae Park, about 2 miles south of the shooting scene. Walls allegedly fled and was tracked by a K-9 officer, while two other people remained in the car, Parizek said. All three were taken into custody.

The two others remain in custody as of Monday night. At a City Council meeting Monday, Mayor Frank Cownie said the suspects are teenagers.

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‘Cop cars pouring in from everywhere’

The Starts Right Here program was founded by local rapper and activist Holmes, whose stage name is Will Keeps.

Nicole Krantz, a coder at MercyOne Des Moines Clinics Administration, said her office, which is next door to Starts Right Here, was put on lockdown immediately after the shooting. She said she saw someone running from the building with police in pursuit, both on foot and in patrol cars.

“We just saw a lot of cop cars pouring in from everywhere,” Krantz said.

“It’s terrifying. We’re all worried,” she said. “We went on lockdown, obviously. We were all told to stay away from the windows because we weren’t sure if they caught the guy.”

The shootings are the latest in a wave of violence that has swept over the Des Moines metro since early December, including at least 10 homicides, the killing by Des Moines police of a 16-year-old who they said raised a gun toward them, and several non-fatal shootings.

Parizek said that although “there was nothing random” about Monday’s shootings, the specific motive was unclear. It was the eighth homicide in the city of Des Moines in the past two months, he said, “and the why is the one thing that sometimes we never know, unless somebody tells us the why.”

State, local leaders react to shootings

In a partnership started in 2021 with Des Moines Public Schools, Starts Right Here helps reengage students in the district’s Options Academy credit recovery program, the school district said in a news release. It said the group supports students no longer in a school building due to behavioral issues.

The group serves 40 to 50 students at any given time, with the district providing educational programming, the release said. No Des Moines schools personnel were at Starts Right Here when the shootings occurred, it said.

Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert is on the Starts Right Here board, and Gov. Kim Reynolds is on an advisory board.

Reynolds in May 2021 signed a bill expanding charter schools in a ceremony at Starts Right Here. In a statement Monday, she said she was “shocked and saddened to hear about the shooting at Starts Right Here.”

Reynolds added: “I’ve seen first-hand how hard Will Keeps and his staff works to help at-risk kids through this alternative education program. My heart breaks for them, these kids and their families. Kevin and I are praying for their safe recovery.” 

A statement released on behalf of the Starts Right Here board of directors said classes are canceled for the remainder of the week, though they will provide grief services for students. It said they will not stop doing the work “we are called to do.”

“This is a tremendously painful time for our entire Starts Right Here community, as our sole focus is to help at-risk youth reach their full potential,” the statement said. “These actions are contrary to all that we stand for and point out more must be done. These two students had hope and a future that will never be realized.”

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek called for more effective prevention of gun violence in educational settings.

“Tragedy has once again struck close to home. Our hearts go out to the victims, families, and school community at Starts Right Here as they endure the unthinkable,” Beranek said in a statement. “We implore our elected leaders to consider effective strategies to eliminate gun violence and pursue concrete solutions that will keep our students, educators, and communities safe. Our schools need to be bastions of safety, not the recipients of violence. This needs to end.”  

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Will Keeps founded Starts Right Here to combat youth violence

Holmes has said he founded Starts Right Here to help prevent youth violence. He’s said he was born on the South Side of Chicago and became involved with a gang after traumatic events in his childhood.

“I thought the streets was my family,” he said as one of the presenters at the Des Moines Register’s Storytellers Project in 2018. “I thought these people on the streets would have my back more than my own family would. I thought that they would protect me more than my own family would.”

Then he saw a friend fatally shot and suffered a beating that nearly killed him, leaving him angry and aggressive, he said.

He carried those emotions to Iowa, he said, as well as his career as a rapper. But when his children challenged him to write a song about “what’s going on in the community,” he said, he came up with one that was about “opening up people on each side to listen to and understand each other.”

It opened his eyes to the possibilities for change.

“You see, when I subtracted negativity from my life and added hope and multiplied that to the people around me, I saw the division in my city start to fade,” he said. “That helped me have more of a positive influence in my community.”

Contributing: Virginia Barreda, Samantha Hernandez, and F. Amanda Tugade, Des Moines Register

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