By SCOTT McFETRIDGE and HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An 18-year-old who police say was involved in an ongoing gang dispute walked into the common area of an alternative education program for at-risk students and fatally shot two teenagers in a premeditated attack — chasing one of them down and shooting him several more times when he tried to run, according to a charging document released Tuesday.
Police said the shooting on Monday that killed two males, ages 18 and 16, and left the founder of the program with life-threatening injuries was a targeted attack. The founder of the Starts Right Here program, 49-year-old William Holmes, underwent surgery and was in serious condition.
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.
Eighteen-year-old Preston Walls of Des Moines was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of criminal gang participation. He made a brief court appearance Tuesday, with a preliminary hearing scheduled for Feb. 3.
Walls is jailed on $1 million bond. The Polk County public defender’s office, which will provide his attorney, declined comment.
Walls was on supervised release for a weapons charge, and he cut off his ankle monitor 16 minutes before the shooting, police said.
“There was nothing random about this,” Police Sgt. Paul Parizek said.
Investigators say in the charging document that Walls had a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity extended magazine concealed on him when entered a common area of the Starts Right Here program. The affidavit said Holmes tried to escort Walls out, but Walls pulled away, drew the gun and shot the two teenagers several times.
One of the victims tried to flee, but the affidavit said that Walls chased him down “and shot him multiple more times.”
Holmes was struck by the gunfire. No further details about his injuries have been released.
Responding officers saw a suspicious vehicle leaving the area and stopped it. Police said Walls ran but was found hiding in a brush pile with the 9 mm handgun next to him. The ammunition magazine, which has a capacity of 31 rounds, contained three, police said.
According to the affidavit, the shooting was captured on surveillance video, and Walls’ clothing and his Glock firearm matched those seen on the video.
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 two others in the vehicle with Walls are also teenagers. They were taken into custody and released without charges.
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, which is 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.
“I’ve seen first-hand how hard Will Keeps and his staff works to help at-risk kids through this alternative education program,” Gov. Kim Reynolds, who serves on an advisory board for Starts Right Here, 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.
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Associated Press writers Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri, and Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.
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