2 Students Are Fatally Shot at Youth Program in Des Moines

An 18-year-old gang member has been charged with murdering two teenagers who the authorities said were in a rival gang. The founder of a program for at-risk youths was also shot and was seriously injured.

A police officer in technical gear stands next to a white van with “Starts Right Here” written on its side in a parking lot. A strand of yellow police tape is in the foreground.
The shooting happened at Starts Right Here, a program for at-risk students that operates out of a business park in downtown Des Moines.Credit...Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

An 18-year-old gang member cut off a court-ordered ankle monitor and went to an educational program for at-risk youths on Monday in Des Moines, where he fatally shot two fellow students who were members of an opposing gang, the authorities said.

The gunman, identified by police as Preston Walls, 18, of Des Moines, also shot William Holmes, 49, who founded the Starts Right Here program, the police said in statement on Monday night. Mr. Holmes was hospitalized in serious condition, the police said.

The two dead victims, a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old whose names were not immediately released, were residents of Des Moines, the police said.

Mr. Walls is believed to have shot the two teenagers because of a gang dispute, the police said. Mr. Walls was wearing a court-ordered GPS ankle monitor as a pretrial release condition after a weapons charge, and cut off the monitor about 16 minutes before the shooting, the police said.

Mr. Walls walked into a common area at Starts Right Here on Monday afternoon, carrying a handgun with an extended ammunition magazine, the police said. Mr. Holmes tried to escort Mr. Walls out of the area before Mr. Walls began shooting, according to the authorities.

After shooting at the two teens and Mr. Holmes, Mr. Walls fled on foot, the police said.

Mr. Walls was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and criminal gang participation.

Mayor Frank Cownie of Des Moines said at a City Council meeting on Monday night that Mr. Holmes, a rapper who performs under the name Will Keeps, was “recovering tonight in the hospital.”

“Unfortunately, this is another one of those events that seems to take place too often across too many communities in this country, a story that repeats itself, the tragic story of young lives taken far too soon by gun violence,” Mr. Cownie said.

Police officers and firefighters responded to a report of a shooting inside Starts Right Here, which operates out of a unit in a business park in downtown Des Moines, just before 1 p.m. and found two injured students and an injured staff member, the police said in a statement.

The two students were pronounced dead at a hospital, Sgt. Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department said at a news conference.

About 20 minutes after the shooting, the police took three people into custody after making a traffic stop about two miles from the shooting site, Sergeant Parizek said. Two people remained inside the car and the third ran away. A police dog helped track that person down, the sergeant said.

Two other people were still in custody on Monday night as part of the investigation, the police said.

According to its website, Starts Right Here works directly with the city’s public schools by offering tutoring, mentoring and job training. The group’s space also includes a recording studio.

At the news conference, Sergeant Parizek said he felt “like a broken record.”

“We’ve got to get everybody around the table and start finding the solutions to this because the police cannot do it all,” he said. “We’re good at what we do, but that doesn’t give families any peace. That doesn’t give the friends of these kids any hope that it’s going to get any better. We need the support on that front side.”

Sergeant Parizek said Starts Right Here is designed to “pick up the slack” and “help kids who need help the most, the ones who aren’t getting the services that they need for a variety of different reasons.”

“To have it happen here is just, it’s going to be a horrible impact on the community,” he said of the shooting. “The fact that two kids are dead, that’s horrible enough.”

Chief Dana Wingert of the Des Moines Police Department and Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s governor, are among the members of the group’s advisory board.

Matt Smith, the interim superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools, said in a statement that the district was “saddened to learn of another act of gun violence” and described Starts Right Here as “a valuable partner.”

Since 2021, Starts Right Here has provided two services, the statement said: helping to re-engage students in the district’s Options Academy, a credit-recovery program that allows for students from age 17 to 21 to earn their diploma by finishing their credit requirements through self-paced classes or a high school equivalency diploma test, and supporting students academically and socially who no longer attend a traditional school.

The organization serves more than 50 Des Moines Public Schools students at any given time, it said, and the district provides educational programming.

Some students are in the program because of behavioral or discipline reasons that keep them from being in traditional classrooms, and others are in the program because they benefit from learning in an alternative setting, Phil Roeder, a spokesman for Des Moines Public Schools, said.

Sergeant Parizek said that the Police Department had worked closely with Starts Right Here and that Mr. Holmes had historically “run a very successful operation.” But the chief acknowledged that the nonprofit was “dealing with kids who are troubled and have a variety of challenges.”

In a statement, Ms. Reynolds said: “I am shocked and saddened to hear about the shooting at Starts Right Here. I’ve seen firsthand 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.”

Ann Hinga Klein contributed reporting.