DES MOINES, Iowa — An 18-year-old man was charged with murder in Monday’s killing of two teenagers at an alternative educational program for at-risk youth in Des Moines.
Police said Preston Walls of Des Moines is charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the Monday shooting at Starts Right Here. Two teenagers — an 18-year-old male and a 16-year-old male — were killed in the attack.
The program’s founder, 49-year-old William Holmes — a rapper who goes by the stage name Will Keeps — was injured.
Police said Walls was on supervised pre-trial release on a weapons charge and had removed an ankle bracelet 16 minutes before he went to the school with a gun and confronted the two student victims. Police said Walls and the two students all had gang affiliations and were in opposing gangs.
“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,” Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said. “This is a growing and alarming phenomenon in our country, and one we’ve seen too often in the past and again today in the city of Des Moines.”
Cownie held a moment of silence for the victims. He said he spoke to their 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.”
Starts Right Here is an educational program affiliated with the Des Moines school district. Police said emergency crews were called to the school, which is in a business park, just before 1 p.m. Officers arrived to find two students critically injured, and they started CPR immediately. The two students died at a hospital. The adult, later identified by the mayor as Keeps, was in serious condition, and police said he was in surgery Monday evening.
About 20 minutes after the shooting, police said officers stopped a car that matched witnesses’ descriptions about 2 miles (3.22 km) away and took three people into custody. Police said one person ran from the car, but officers tracked that person down with a K-9.
“The incident was definitely targeted. It was not random. There was nothing random about this,” Sgt. Paul Parizek said. But he said the motive for the shooting was unknown.
The Starts Right Here program, which helps at-risk youth in grades 9-12, was founded in 2021 by Keeps.
“The school is designed to pick up the slack and help the kids who need help the most,” Parizek said. Police did not say whether the teenagers in custody were students at the program.
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.
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. It also teaches financial literacy and helps students prepare for job interviews and improve their communication skills. The ultimate goal is to break down barriers of fear, intimidation and other damaging factors leading to a sense of being disenfranchised, forgotten and rejected.”
According to the program’s website, one of Keeps’ songs, “Wake Up Iowa” sends a message that “violence and hate are not the Iowa way, and instead, we need to learn from other cities’ mistakes, so we don’t end up being ravaged by violence and crime.”
The school’s website says 70% of the students it serves are minorities, and it has had 28 graduates since it started. The school district said the program serves 40 to 50 students at any given time. The district said no district employees were on site at the time of the shooting.
Interim Superintendent Matt Smith said in a statement: “We are saddened to learn of another act of gun violence, especially one that impacts an organization that works closely with some of our students. We are still waiting to learn more details, but our thoughts are with any victims of this incident and their families and friends.”
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.”
Nicole Krantz said her office near the school was put on lockdown immediately after the shooting, and she saw someone running from the building with police in pursuit on foot and in patrol cars.
“We just saw a lot of cop cars pouring in from everywhere,” Krantz told the Des Moines Register. “It’s terrifying. We’re all worried. 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 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 associated with the shooting.
— Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Associated Press writers Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri, and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this report.