01:29 - Source: WBMA
Former NASA astronaut charged with murder

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Naiomi Deona James, 11, and Jayla Latrice Parler, 13, die in auto collision in Alabama

Former astronaut is arrested

CNN  — 

A retired NASA astronaut has been charged with murder following an auto collision in Alabama that resulted in the death of two girls.

James Donald Halsell Jr., 59, was arrested and charged Monday with two counts of murder in a possible DUI accident that killed Naiomi Deona James, 11, and Jayla Latrice Parler, 13, in the wreck near Tuscaloosa.

The girls were half-sisters, according to the AL.com news website.

Halsell’s vehicle hit a Ford Fiesta from behind at an extremely high rate of speed, crushing and pushing the Fiesta sideways across the highway and into a median early Monday, according to court documents. The Fiesta flipped at least twice and landed in the lane of opposing traffic, the documents said.

James was pronounced dead at the scene, and Parler was taken to DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, where she was pronounced dead.

Halsell served on five space shuttle missions for NASA before retiring in 2006.

The girls were not wearing seat belts and were ejected, Alabama Senior Trooper Reginal King said.

Pernell Deon James, 37, and another passenger, Shontel Latriva Cutts, 25, were taken to the hospital and treated for injuries that weren’t life-threatening, King said.

James is the girls’ father, AL.com reported.

Halsell had been traveling to West Monroe, Louisiana, and stopped before the crash to get a room at a Motel 6 in Tuscaloosa, according to the court documents. While at the motel, he allegedly told police, he drank three glasses of wine.

Halsell, whom police detained at the crash scene, said he didn’t remember leaving the motel or how the crash happened, according to the court documents.

He allegedly tried to take the vehicle of a motorist who had stopped to assist the victims, police say in the documents.

Police did not find any evidence of drugs or alcohol at the crash scene, but while searching Halsell’s hotel room they found an empty bottle of wine and 10 empty sleeping pill packages, the court documents said.

Halsell was booked into the Tuscaloosa County Jail and was released later after posting a $150,000 bond, Sgt. Alex Miles of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said.

Halsell logged more than 1,250 hours in space throughout five space shuttle missions for NASA, according to biographical data from the space agency. He commanded three of those missions before retiring in 2006. He led the space shuttle’s return-to-flight planning team after the Columbia disaster in 2003.

CNN’s attempts to reach Halsell and his family have been unsuccessful.

NASA declined to comment about the arrest.

Under the Alabama criminal code, a person can be charged with murder if he or she, “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life … recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to a person other than himself or herself, and thereby causes the death of another person.”

CNN’s Maddie Felts and Kyle Schade contributed to this report.