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Ex-astronaut charged with murder in car wreck that killed 2

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Space shuttle Atlantis mission commander James Halsell Jr. spoke to reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. in April 2000 about a problem with the Atlantis. Halsell Jr. of Huntsville was arrested after a crash that killed 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler of Brent early Monday.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. » Astronaut James Halsell Jr. seemed the very definition of someone with the right stuff. An Air Force Academy graduate and decorated test pilot, he commanded or piloted five space shuttle missions. NASA even turned to him for leadership as it was picking up the pieces after the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Now, a decade after his retirement from the space agency, the 59-year-old Halsell is facing a new test: He is charged with murder after an early-morning car wreck Monday killed two young sisters on a lonely stretch of highway in Alabama.

State police said alcohol and speed may have been factors in the crash.

Troopers said a Chrysler 300 driven by Halsell collided around 2:50 a.m. with a Ford Fiesta in which 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler were riding. The girls were thrown from the car and died. Neither was wearing a seat belt.

Halsell, who lives in Huntsville, was arrested and released from jail on $150,000 bail. Court records weren’t available Tuesday to show whether the retired Air Force colonel has a lawyer. A call to his home was not immediately returned.

The girls’ father, Pernell James, 37, had driven to Texas to pick them up at their mother’s home in Houston for a summer-long visit to Alabama, said Dennis Stripling, mayor of the town of Brent.

“It’s very tragic, a sad thing that has happened,” Stripling said. “They were like 20 minutes from home when this accident happened.”

The father was expected to be released from a hospital Tuesday. A woman in his car, Shontel Latriva Cutts, 25, was listed in fair condition.

The crash happened in a remote, wooded area on the edge of Tuscaloosa County with no highway lampposts. A set of swerving skid marks could be seen, along with a patch of blackened pavement and grass on the tree-lined shoulder of the highway.

Halsell graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1978 and later finished first in his class at test-pilot school. He wanted to go to space so much he applied for every NASA astronaut class from 1978 to 1990, when he was accepted.

An online biography by NASA said Halsell went to work in the aerospace industry in 2006 after a career that included five shuttle flights starting in 1994. He spent more than 1,250 hours in space, serving as commander on three shuttle missions and pilot on two others.

He also led NASA’s return-to-flight planning team after space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003.

AP aerospace writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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      • Why so judgmental? This was an innocent family’s tragedy brought on by drunkenness.

        Sounds to me like the poor father, and probably his girlfriend, were driving through straight from Texas, bringing the girls to his home for the summer.

        It’s heartbreaking that they weren’t wearing their seat belts, but let’s withhold judgement for a bit. Most likely they’d unbuckled to lay down and fall asleep together on that long drive, happy to be on their way to their dad’s house for the summer. Poor little girls, heartbroken families…Alcoholism is a tragic disease every day.

  • Impressive profile and history of a former astronaut! Very sad indeed his impairment, from excessive alcohol consumption, accidentally killed two children. Unfortunately for the living , this traumatic tragedy will not be easy to overcome. Godspeed!

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