A former astronaut who flew five shuttle missions has been charged with murder after a wreck that killed two girls in Alabama, state troopers said.
James Halsell Jr., 59, of Huntsville, Ala., was arrested after a crash that killed 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler of Brent early Monday, according to Reginal King, a spokesman for Alabama state troopers.
Both victims were ejected from the vehicle and died. Two adults who were in the car also suffered injuries and were hospitalized.
Halsell, who helped lead NASA back into space after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, was charged with two counts of murder by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
According to court documents, Halsell told troopers he was traveling to West Monroe, La., to get his son and thought he was traveling on I-20.
The wreck happened at 2:50 a.m. on U.S. 82, a rural highway east of Tuscaloosa.
Troopers said a Chrysler 300 driven by Halsell collided with a Ford Fiesta in which the girls were passengers. Halsell's car was traveling eastbound in the right lane of U.S. 82 early Monday morning when it struck the car.
The Fiesta's driver told troopers Halsell was driving at a high rate of speed and struck his vehicle from behind. The car was crushed and pushed sideways across the left eastbound lane into the median and flipped at least twice before landing in the left westbound lane.
Troopers reported physical evidence at the scene was consistent with the driver's account.
Halsell reportedly told troopers he got a room at a Motel 6 in Tuscaloosa and did not remember leaving. According to court records, he also asked to see the victim's bodies and attempted to take the vehicle of a man who stopped to help at the crash site.
During a search of the hotel room, troopers reported locating an empty wine bottle and an empty package of 10 sleeping pills. Halsell reportedly told troopers at the scene he had drank three glasses of wine earlier in the evening.
Court documents also report Halsell told officers he attempted to flee the scene by taking a truck. He also made several nonsensical statements around 5 a.m., which troopers said indicated he was very intoxicated.
Halsell was released from the Tuscaloosa County jail on $150,000 bond Monday night, said Lt. Andy Norris, a department spokesman.
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 also served as the NASA manager for space shuttle launch integration at Kennedy Space Center in Florida before leading 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, according to his NASA biography.
ATK hired Halsell in 2006 as the vice-president and program manager of an ATK-led team based in Huntsville.
A display at the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe pays tribute to Halsell's accomplishments as an astronaut with roots in northeast Louisiana.
Nell Calloway, museum director, expressed shock over Halsell's arrest, and said his display, which features a flight suit, models of aircraft and space shuttles and a flag, has always been popular with children visiting the museum.
"He is a pioneer of aviation," Calloway said. "He is the pilot of the Air Force SR-76 that is in the Smithsonian in Washington. He has really helped put Monroe and West Monroe on the map. This is truly a shame.
"He has meant a whole lot to the community because of the fact he is our first local astronaut, and he connects us to the space program," Calloway said.
In 2005, the ROTC building at West Monroe High School was renamed in Halsell's honor.
Contributing: The Associated Press