Program founder wounded in Des Moines school shooting is Chicago native who left gang

William Holmes, founder of an alternative studies program for at-risk youth, joined a gang at 13, turned his life around and dedicated himself to help young people in need.

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Law enforcement officers stand outside a school housing an educational program called Starts Right Here that is affiliated with the Des Moines school district, following a shooting Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. Police say two students were killed, and an adult employee was seriously injured in the shooting at the school dedicated to helping at-risk youth. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register via AP) ORG XMIT: IADES601

Police in Des Moines at the scene of a school shooting Monday. Authorities say an 18-year-old involved in an ongoing gang dispute entered the school and shot and killed two teens. William Holmes, 49, who runs the Starts Right Here program for at-risk youth, was wounded and is listed in serious condition.

AP Photos

DES MOINES, Iowa — 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 also left the founder of the Starts Right Here program with life-threatening injuries was a targeted attack. The founder, 49-year-old William Holmes, underwent surgery and was in serious condition.

Police on Tuesday identified those killed as 18-year-old Gionni Dameron and 16-year-old Rashad Carr.

Holmes, an activist and rapper who goes by the stage name Will Keeps, joined a gang as a 13-year-old in Chicago but moved to Iowa more than two decades ago and dedicated his life to helping young people in need, according to his LinkedIn page.

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 concealed 9 mm semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity extended magazine when he entered a common area of the program. The affidavit said Holmes tried to escort Walls out, but Walls pulled away, drew the gun and shot the two teenagers several times.

The document said one victim tried to flee, but Walls chased him down “and shot him multiple more times.” The document blacked out the name of the victim except the first letter of the last name, “C,” indicating that it was Carr.

Holmes was struck by the gunfire. His family said in a statement Tuesday that he “has a long recovery ahead and we are deeply appreciative for the care he is receiving.”

Despite his injuries, Holmes is “now more determined than ever to continue with his work with at-risk youth and looks forward to, once again, working hand-in-hand with other community leaders on the mission of Starts Right Here,” they wrote.

Responding officers saw a 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. The program which began in 2021 helps at-risk youth in grades 9-12 and is affiliated with the Des Moines school district.

“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.”

Dameron’s father, Gary Dameron, 37, said his son was on track to graduate this spring. He planned to attend barber college and become a barber, just like his dad.

Gary Dameron said he has known Holmes for years and reached out to him personally to get his son enrolled in Starts Right Here. Despite the police claim that the shooting was gang-related, he said his son was not involved in a gang, describing him as “family-oriented” with a “goofy” sense of humor.

“He just had one of those personalities that when he came in the room, everybody kind of gravitated to him,” Gary Dameron said.

Gionni Dameron turned 18 on Friday, his father said.

Dameron said his son and Carr were best friends. He described Carr as “very respectable,” cool and soft-spoken.

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 a 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.

Feuerhelm said he didn’t know whether Walls was part of the school program.

Holmes said in his LinkedIn profile that he was just 15 when he saw a friend die at the hands of a rival gang. A gun pointed at him jammed and he was beaten but survived.

“I moved to Des Moines in my 20s and began a new life, focusing on my future and how I wanted to be remembered,” Holmes wrote. “I wanted to help others to make a change so they wouldn’t have to go through life feeling uncared for, unloved, or in a home that wasn’t safe.”

The Starts Right Here 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.

Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Associated Press writers Trisha Ahmed in Washington, D.C., Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri, and Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.

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