By SCOTT McFETRIDGE and JOSH FUNK from the Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The killing of two students at an alternative education program designed to help at-risk teenagers in Des Moines was a targeted attack that stemmed from an ongoing gang dispute, 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 wounded 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, is charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, police said. He is 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 he 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 entered a common area where Holmes and the two students were, police said. Walls had a 9mm handgun with an extended ammunition magazine with him, 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.
The Starts Right Here board of directors said in a statement that classes were cancelled for the remainder of the week and that grief counselors will be available.
“These actions are contrary to all that we stand for and point out more must be done,” the board said. “These two students had hope and a future that will never be realized. We can no longer say this type of violence doesn’t happen in Des Moines. Sadly, it does.”
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.
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 appeared in court.
Last year, Walls was charged with three counts alleging that he knowingly resisted or obstructed a West Des Moines police officer while armed with a firearm and intoxicated, court records show.
His attorney in that case, Jake Feuerhelm, said that in the incident last May, Walls was part of gathering of young people that police approached. While they were trying to sort out what was happening, Walls, who was 17 at the time, took off. Because he was armed while fleeing from police, he was charged, Feuerhelm said.
In December, he was placed under the supervision of the Department of Correction’s Youthful Offender Program, a type of diversion in which he could avoid a felony conviction if he completed the intensive supervision successfully.
Feuerhelm said he didn’t know whether Walls was part of the school program.
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.”
“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.
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