Two students were killed just before 1 p.m. Monday in shootings at Starts Right Here, an educational mentorship program in downtown Des Moines that helps at-risk youth and has won high-profile support from state and city leaders.
Police spokesperson Sgt. Paul Parizek said Starts Right Here founder and CEO, Will Holmes, who is known by his stage name Will Keeps, was seriously injured and remains hospitalized as of Monday evening.
Parizek said the wounded students aged 16 and 18 were found in very critical condition and that officers performed CPR on them. They were taken to a hospital, where they died.
Late Monday, police charged 18-year-old Des Moines resident Preston Walls with two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and criminal gang participation.
Parizek said in a news release that Walls was allegedly armed with a 9mm handgun with an extended ammunition magazine at Starts Right Here. Holmes attempted to escort him out of the building when Walls allegedly started shooting at the teenagers.
“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,” Parizek said in the release. He did not elaborate on the evidence that links the shootings to rival gangs.
At about 1:20 p.m., based on a witness description, police stopped a vehicle near MacRae Park, about 2 miles south of the shooting scene. Walls allegedly fled and was tracked by a K-9 officer to the 1300 block of River Vista Drive, while two other people remained in the car, Parizek said. All three were taken into custody.
The two others remain in custody as of Monday night. At a City Council meeting Monday, Mayor Frank Cownie said the suspects are teenagers.
More:What people are saying about the Des Moines shooting that killed 2 students
About 20 people gathered at MercyOne Des Moines emergency room vestibule and lobby Monday afternoon.
A few confirmed to the Des Moines Register they were either friends or family of the individuals who died in the shooting, but declined to comment further. They stood, paced, sat and chatted as they waited to hear further news about their loved ones. Many of them were teenagers.
Several cars, as well as police vehicles, were parked in front of the entrance to the hospital. A crime scene unit was also seen leaving the parking lot.
Bystander: ‘Cop cars pouring in from everywhere’
The Starts Right Here program, 455 S.W. Fifth St., was founded by local rapper and activist Holmes, whose stage name is Will Keeps.
Nicole Krantz, a coder at MercyOne Des Moines Clinics Administration, said her office, which is next door to Starts Right Here, was put on lockdown immediately after the shooting. She said she saw someone running from the building with police in pursuit, both on foot and in patrol cars.
“We just saw a lot of cop cars pouring in from everywhere,” Krantz said.
“It’s terrifying. We’re all worried,” she said. “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.”
Krantz said she was taking the rest of the day off because of stress and anxiety.
The shootings are the latest in a wave of violence that has swept over the Des Moines metro since early December, including at least 10 homicides, the killing by Des Moines police of a 16-year-old who they said raised a gun toward them, and several non-fatal shootings.
Parizek said that although “there was nothing random” about Monday’s shootings, the specific motive was unclear. It was the eighth homicide in the city of Des Moines in the past two months, he said, “and the why is the one thing that sometimes we never know, unless somebody tells us the why.”
More:What we know about Starts Right Here, where 2 students were shot dead and founder wounded
State, local leaders react to shootings
In a partnership started in 2021 with Des Moines Public Schools, Starts Right Here helps reengage students in the district’s Options Academy credit recovery program, the school district said in a news release. It said the group supports students no longer in a school building due to behavioral issues.
The group serves 40 to 50 students at any given time, with the district providing educational programming, the release said. No Des Moines schools personnel were at Starts Right Here when the shootings occurred, it said.
Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert is on the Starts Right Here board, and Gov. Kim Reynolds is on an advisory board.
Reynolds in May 2021 signed a bill expanding charter schools in a ceremony at Starts Right Here. In a statement Monday, she said she was “shocked and saddened to hear about the shooting at Starts Right Here. I’ve seen first-hand 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. Kevin and I are praying for their safe recovery.”
U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, tweeted that he was “monitoring reports of a shooting in Des Moines at Starts Right Here…”
“Thx to first responders & law enforcement for promptly responding,” he wrote. “Praying for all those affected.”
Des Moines schools interim Superintendent Matt Smith said in a statement that school officials were waiting to learn more details., but that “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,” adding, “Our thoughts are with any victims of this incident and their families and friends.”
Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek called for more effective prevention of gun violence in educational settings.
“Tragedy has once again struck close to home. Our hearts go out to the victims, families, and school community at Starts Right Here as they endure the unthinkable,” Beranek said in a statement. “We implore our elected leaders to consider effective strategies to eliminate gun violence and pursue concrete solutions that will keep our students, educators, and communities safe. Our schools need to be bastions of safety, not the recipients of violence. This needs to end. As a nation we need to recognize this is (a) societal issue seeping into our schools.”
Amid a busy day focused on education issues, the Iowa House held a moment of silence for the victims Monday at the request of Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights.
“A few moments ago, two students in Des Moines were killed in a shooting at the Starts Right Here educational nonprofit mentorship program on Southwest Fifth. One adult we believe is in serious condition. I would like to ask for a moment of silence to honor the families of those who lost a child today and to honor and lift up Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad who is there currently helping to mend those in the aftermath,” Konfrst said.
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, also led the Iowa Senate in a moment of silence.
“I’m just asking everyone to take a moment of silence, pray for the families of the victims and the victims, and the people of that educational institution,” Zaun said.
Will Keeps founded Starts Right Here to combat youth violence
Holmes has said he founded Starts Right Here to help prevent youth violence. He’s said he was born on the South Side of Chicago and became involved with a gang there after traumatic events in his childhood.
“I thought the streets was my family,” he said as one of the presenters at the Des Moines Register’s Storytellers Project in 2018. “I thought these people on the streets would have my back more than my own family would. I thought that they would protect me more than my own family would.”
Then he saw a friend fatally shot and suffered a beating that nearly killed him, leaving him angry and aggressive, he said.
He carried those emotions to Iowa, he said, as well as his career as a rapper. But when his children challenged him to write a song about “what’s going on in the community,” he said, he came up with one that was about “opening up people on each side to listen to and understand each other.”
It opened his eyes to the possibilities for change.
“You see, when I subtracted negativity from my life and added hope and multiplied that to the people around me, I saw the division in my city start to fade,” he said. “That helped me have more of a positive influence in my community.”
Staff writers Virginia Barreda, Samantha Hernandez and F. Amanda Tugade contributed to this article.