By JIM SALTER and HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, Associated Press
Will Keeps was a 15-year-old member of a Chicago gang when he witnessed rival members kill his friend. He escaped the streets and moved to Iowa to help other young people from troubled backgrounds.
Now, Keeps is hospitalized and in serious condition following just the sort of violence he has devoted his life to stopping: a shooting that killed two teenagers at the Starts Right Here education program he founded in Des Moines. Keeps was also shot in Monday’s attack, which police say was gang-related, and underwent surgery.
Keeps, 49, is a rapper and activist whose given name is William Holmes. He launched Starts Right Here in 2021 and partners with Des Moines Public Schools to help kids who are otherwise falling through the cracks of the educational system. One of Keeps’ songs, “Wake Up Iowa,” sends a message, “You don’t gotta do illegal stuff, you don’t gotta kill somebody just to feel tough.”
School leaders and police all agree the shooting won’t stop the program — or Keeps.
“Amazing. Incredibly passionate. Creative,” interim schools Superintendent Matt Smith said. “Has the biggest heart for kids and for our community — is a fierce advocate for justice and for serving students. He’s a genuine man. He’s a really good man.”
Preston Walls, 18, a program participant, was charged Tuesday with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of criminal gang participation. Police said the killings of 18-year-old Gionni Dameron and 16-year-old Rashad Carr were gang-related, though Dameron’s father said his son was not involved in a gang, and Carr’s friends told the Des Moines Register he was not in a gang, either. Walls is jailed on $1 million bond, and the public defender’s office handling his case has declined to comment.
In a LinkedIn profile, Keeps said he was 7 when he was sexually abused by his stepfather. Confused and angry, he ended up in a Chicago gang at age 13.
Two years later, after rival gang members killed his friend, they pointed the gun at Keeps, but it jammed, he said. So they cut him, beat him with baseball bats and left him for dead.
He survived and moved to Des Moines in his 20s.
“We owe it to our children to create a world where youth do not experience the challenges, barriers, and issues that I did,” Keeps said in the profile.
“Will has a huge heart for kids,” Brian Herbel, vice president of the Starts Right Here Board of Directors, said in an email. “He has made it his life’s mission to help lost kids and is like a father figure for many of them. He is able to connect with the kids because he had his own troubled past and has overcome it.”
Keeps has an unmistakable presence and passion, Smith said, though he’s soft-spoken — except for his laugh.
“You can hear it all the way down the hallway,” Smith said. “It’s very high-pitched. You don’t even know what he’s laughing about, but you can’t help but laugh with him.”
Starts Right Here is funded by grants and donors. Some students are directed to the program by the school district. Others are sent by their parents.
The program operates two tracks. One is for students 17 or older who have accumulated very few credits and helps them catch up so they can graduate. The second track is for students who have difficulty staying focused in a traditional school setting. All told, Starts Right Here serves about 40 students.
The program fills a void, Smith said.
“Students and families just felt lost,” Smith said. “They just felt like they couldn’t find their footing in our education system and Des Moines Public Schools, and in connecting with Will, they felt a different sort of focus, a different sort of attention, and found incredible success.”
The program’s Facebook feed is filled with some of those success stories, and Keeps sometimes brags about them on his own social media. In one tweet last spring, he posed with a student who floundered in virtual school after COVID-19 hit. “She gave up,” he said, until she gave Starts Right Here a try. Now: “GRADUATED!” he proclaimed.
The Starts Right Here website says 70% of the students it serves are members of minority groups. Thirty participants have graduated from high school, the district said, and five others are on track to graduate this spring.
No previous violence has occurred at the school, Smith said. But Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said programs that serve at-risk students need to be especially vigilant.
“If you are enrolling someone who has had a background of extensive criminal misbehavior, it’s incumbent upon the school officials to take additional steps to provide a closer level of supervision,” he said.
The doors at the program are always locked, Smith said. He wasn’t sure if guards were present Monday. The program offers classes in the morning only; many students have internships at businesses in the afternoon. The shooting happened just before 1 p.m. Authorities haven’t said who else, if anyone, was in the building at the time.
Police have said the shooting was premeditated. Walls was on supervised release for a weapons charge last year and was wearing an ankle monitor, which he cut off 16 minutes before the shooting, police said.
Investigators say in a charging document that Walls had a concealed, semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity extended magazine when he entered a common area. Keeps tried to escort him out, but Walls pulled away, drew the gun and shot the two teenagers several times, the document stated. Keeps was also struck.
One teenage victim tried to flee, according to the document, but Walls chased him down “and shot him multiple more times.” Walls was captured a short time later.
Keeps’ family said in a statement Tuesday that he “has a long recovery ahead” but is determined to continue his mission of helping at-risk youth.
Advocates understand the challenges Keeps faces.
Police Chief Dana Wingerts, who is a member of the Starts Right Here Board of Directors, said in a statement Wednesday that it was especially tragic that the violence happened at a place Keeps created to “provide hope and opportunity to some of our most troubled youth.”
Wingerts left no doubt he expects Keeps to bounce back.
“As troubling as this is, it would be a mistake to underestimate the passion and energy that he will bring to this important work upon his recovery,” Wingerts said.
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Associated Press reporters Scott McFetridge in Des Moines and Trisha Ahmed in Washington contributed to this report.