Police: Ex-astronaut tried to take vehicle after fatal crash

James Halsell, Jr. (Courtesy: Tuscaloosa County Jail)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A former space shuttle commander and pilot charged with reckless murder in the deaths of two young sisters tried to take the vehicle of a passer-by who stopped to offer aid after a fiery crash on a desolate highway in rural Alabama, court documents showed Wednesday.

The claim is included in a state trooper's sworn description of the wreck that led to the arrest of former astronaut and five-time shuttle flier James Halsell Jr., 59, of Huntsville.

The officer wrote that Halsell appeared extremely intoxicated after a crash that killed two girls, 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler, on a four-lane highway about 2:50 a.m. Monday. A motorist who stopped to offer aid told officers the one-time astronaut tried to take his pickup truck, appeared drunk and "was bouncing around," the statement said.

The description doesn't say what happened next, but Halsell was still on the scene when officers arrived. The one-time test pilot and retired Air Force colonel told officers he had drank three glasses of wine and stayed at a hotel in Tuscaloosa, where investigators found an empty wine bottle and a package of sleeping pills, also empty.

"Halsell was under the influence of alcohol and said he didn't remember leaving the hotel. Halsell said he will have to figure out what happened in the crash because he didn't know," the officer wrote.

Halsell is free on $150,000 bond. A woman who answered the phone at his home number Wednesday declined comment. Court records don't list a defense attorney who could speak on his behalf.

An online biography by NASA said Halsell's career with the space agency 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.

After the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, Halsell helped lead NASA's return-to-flight effort. He retired in 2006 and worked for at least two aerospace companies afterward, including ATK Launch Systems, Utah, according to his NASA biography.

The police report lists him as being retired at the time of the crash.

The girls live with their mother in Houston and their father, Pernell James of Brent, was returning home from Texas with them and a woman for a summertime visit, according to Brent Mayor Dennis Stripling.

James told investigators he was driving about 65 mph on U.S. 82 when a car traveling "at a very high rate of speed" struck his Ford Fiesta from the rear, crushing the Ford and sending it tumbling across the road, the court document states. The girls were ejected, state troopers said.

Halsell, who told officers he was headed to his native Louisiana to pick up his son, was driving a rented Chrysler 200 car and said he thought he was on Interstate 20/59, not U.S. 82, at the time of the crash, the trooper's statement said.

The trooper wrote that Halsell made nonsensical statements, adding: "Halsell was so intoxicated he asked to see the victims' bodies."

Court documents do not indicate that Halsell mentioned his role as an astronaut to officers, and a trooper spokesman, Reginal King, said authorities did not realize they were dealing with a one-time space shuttle commander until seeing news reports about the wreck.

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