Police discovered an empty package of sleeping pills and a wine bottle inside the motel room of a former NASA astronaut accused of causing a crash in central Alabama early Monday that killed two young sisters.
Investigators said retired Air Force Col. James D. Halsell, Jr., 59, smelled of alcohol, was unstable on his feet and had slurred speech as officials with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency questioned him shortly after 3 a.m. Monday at a crash site on a lonely stretch of highway near Tuscaloosa, according to court documents in the case.
Halsell was charged with murder.
Alabama state police officials said the former space shuttle pilot was driving a rented Chrysler 200 that collided with a Ford Fiesta with four people inside, including sisters Jayla Latrice Parler, 13, and Niomi Deona James, 11. Neither was wearing a seat belt at the time and were thrown the car on impact, authorities said.
The girls’ father, Pernell James, 37, was reportedly driving back to his home nearby after picking up his daughters from their mother’s home in Houston, according to the Associated Press. Also in the car was Shontel Cutts, 25. Both adults were treated at area hospitals for their injuries, authorities said.
Juan Ibarra was driving to work at a construction site that morning when he spotted the crash. He said the force of the impact flipped the Ford Fiesta into the next lane.
“I stopped to help the people in that car,” Ibarra told the Chronicle Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Ibarra said Halsell came up to him. “I tried to help him,” Ibarra recalled, speculating that Halsell had been drinking. “He never said nothing.”
The former astronaut tried to climb inside Ibarra’s pickup and drive away, Ibarra said.
“When I saw that, I ran and took the keys and locked my truck,” he said. “I pushed him and said, ‘Stay away from my truck.'”
Ibarra said that was the last he saw of Halsell, who wandered away into the darkness and was later apprehended by state police officers responding to the fatal crash.
He found one of the girls, apparently Jayla, the older sister, on the freeway. “I tried to talk to her and keep talking to her,” Ibarra said. “She was moaning and in pain.”
Ibarra also saw the younger sister on the ground. “She wasn’t moving – nothing. I feel bad for her,” he said.
The two injured adults who were in the car with the girls seemed dazed after the fatal crash.
“He (their father) was looking for his little girls. He was confused. His face, it was bleeding,” Ibarra said.
During questioning by state police, Halsell said he did not remember what happened. The Huntsville, Ala., resident told them he was travelling to West Monroe, La., to pick up his son and stopped at a Motel 6 in Tuscaloosa.
“He appeared to be confused on where he was, where he was going, and what time it was,” according to an Alabama state police deposition in the case.
Halsell told police he drank three glasses of wine at the motel and didn’t remember leaving.
“Halsell was so intoxicated he asked to see the victims’ bodies,” the troopers said in the deposition.
s taken into custody and charged with two counts of murder. Halsell was released after posting a $150,000 bond.
On Tuesday, a message left at Halsell’s home in Huntsville, Ala. was not returned.
Monday’s arrest was a stunning fall for the veteran NASA astronaut who commanded three of the five shuttle missions he flew into space.
He graduated in 1978 from the U.S. Air Force Academy and flight school a year later. After graduate school, Halsell became a test pilot. NASA chose him for the astronaut program in 1990. He was a pilot for space shuttle missions in 1994 and 1995 and was in charge for two space missions in 1997 and a third in 2000. Halsell logged more than 1,200 hours in space before retiring in 2006 from NASA to take a job in the private sector.