Former astronaut charged with murder after wreck

James D. Halsell Jr. of Huntsville is charged with murder in connection with a fatal crash near Tuscaloosa on Monday, June 6, 2016. (NASA/Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WBMA) — A former NASA astronaut was arrested Monday after an early-morning wreck near Tuscaloosa that killed two girls and injured two adults.

James Halsell Jr., 59, of Huntsville, is charged with murder in the deaths of two girls from Houston, Texas — 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrice Parler — both of who died from injuries they sustained in a crash on U.S. 82 just before 3 a.m. Authorities said both girls, who were passengers in a Ford Fiesta and were not wearing seat belts, were ejected. James died at the scene. Parler was taken to DCH Regional Medical Center, where she was pronounced deceased.

The driver of the car — 37-year-old Pernell Deon James — and a fourth passenger — 25-year-old Shontel Latriva Cutts — were injured and taken to the hospital for treatment. Authorities said James is expected to be released from the hospital Tuesday and Cutts is in fair condition.

According to state troopers, alcohol and speed may have been factors in the wreck. An investigation remains ongoing.

Halsell, who was booked into the Tuscaloosa County Jail and later released on a $150,000 bond, flew five space shuttle missions, according to

Selected by NASA in January 1990, Halsell became an astronaut in July 1991. A five flight veteran, Halsell has logged over 1,250 hours in space. He was the pilot on STS-65 (July 8-23, 1994) and STS-74 (November 12-20, 1995), and commanded STS-83 (Apr 4-8, 1997), STS-94 (July 1-17, 1997) and STS-101 (May 19-29, 2000). From February-August 1998, he served as NASA Director of Operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, Russia. Halsell also served as Manager, Shuttle Launch Integration, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, from July 2000-January 2003. Following the Columbia accident, Halsell led NASA’s Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight Planning Team. He then served as the Assistant Director for Aircraft Operations, Flight Crew Operations Directorate. Halsell retired from NASA in November 2006 to accept a position with ATK Launch Systems, Utah.

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