Two students were killed Monday in what police believed was a gang-related shooting at a Des Moines charter school dedicated to helping at-risk youth. The founder of the facility was also shot and wounded in the attack. An 18-year-old suspect has been arrested, the police said in statement Monday night.
The shooting took place at Starts Right Here, a facility affiliated with the Des Moines school district.
Police said the victims killed were 16 and 18 years old. The person wounded was identified as 49-year-old William Holmes, known as Will Keeps, the founder and CEO of Starts Right Here. He remains hospitalized in serious condition, the police said.
The Des Moines Police Department said detectives arrested a suspect, 18-year-old Preston Walls. He has been charged with two counts of murder in the first degree, attempted murder and criminal gang participation.
“The incident was definitely targeted. It was not random. There was nothing random about this,” Sgt. Paul Parizek 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.
According to a police press release, Walls walked into a common area of the school where Holmes and the two students were. When Holmes tried to escort Walls from the area, Walls allegedly pulled a 9mm handgun with an extended magazine and began to shoot at both teenage victims. Holmes was also struck, and then Walls ran, police said.
Des Moines police officers on patrol saw a a “suspicious vehicle” leaving the area of the shooting and pulled it over. Walls, who was inside, fled, but was located a short time later and taken into custody without incident. Police said the 9mm handgun was found nearby. The extended ammunition magazine in the handgun had a capacity of 31 rounds, and contained three, the police said.
According to police, Walls had been wearing a court-ordered GPS ankle monitor as part of a supervised pre-trial release and cut off the monitor approximately 16 minutes before the shooting.
“Walls, and both deceased victims, are known gang members, belonging to opposing gangs, and evidence indicates that that these crimes were committed as a result of an ongoing gang dispute,” the police statement said.
Police said two other people have also been taken into custody as part of the investigation.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley tweeted that he was monitoring the situation and “praying for all those affected.”
Holmes, a rapper whose stage name is Will Keeps, founded the Starts Right Here program to help at-risk youth in grades 9-12.
“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.
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.”
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 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.”
“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. Kevin and I are praying for their safe recovery.”