Ex-astronaut charged with murder in crash that killed 2 children

FILE -In this Thursday, April 6, 2000 file photo, Space shuttle Atlantis mission commander James Halsell Jr. speaks to reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla, 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, June 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove, File)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A former astronaut who flew five missions and helped lead NASA back into space after the space shuttle Columbia disaster is charged with murder after an early morning wreck that killed two girls in Alabama, state troopers said.

James Halsell Jr., 59, of Huntsville was arrested after a crash killed 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler of Brent early Monday, said a statement from Reginal King, a spokesman for Alabama state troopers.

Troopers said a Chrysler 300 driven by Halsell collided with a Ford Fiesta in which the girls were passengers. Both victims were ejected from the vehicle and died.

Two adults who were in the car suffered injuries and were hospitalized.

A spokesman at DCH Regional Medical Center, Brad Fisher, says 37-year-old Pernell James is listed in good condition and will be discharged from the hospital on Tuesday.

A woman who was injured in the wreck is in worse shape. Fisher says 25-year-old Shontel Latriva Cutts is listed in fair condition.

A preliminary investigation indicated alcohol and speed may have been factors in the crash, said the statement by King. The wreck happened at 2:50 a.m. on U.S. 82, a rural highway east of Tuscaloosa.

Court records weren’t available Tuesday to show whether Halsell, a retired Air Force colonel, has a lawyer. A message left at a home telephone number wasn’t immediately returned.

A spokesman for the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Andy Norris, says Halsell is free on $150,000 bond. He was released nearly 16 hours after the crash.

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 July 1994.

Selected as an astronaut in 1990, Halsell spent more than 1,250 hours in space. The Louisiana native and one-time test pilot commanded three shuttle flights and served as pilot on two others, according to the space agency.

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

Following his retirement from NASA a decade ago, Halsell worked for ATK Launch Systems, Utah, according to his NASA biography.

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