It had been a long drive.
The bare Texas landscape had long faded to Louisiana’s waterways, then Mississippi’s dense walls of pine trees. By 2:50 a.m. Monday morning, though they couldn’t see them in the darkness, the rolling hills of Alabama gently rocked the car.
It was well past midnight, but for half-sisters Niomi Deona James, 11, and Jayla Latrice Parler, 13, summer with their dad in the Yellowhammer State was just around the corner. In fact, at 2:50 a.m., they were only 20 minutes from their father’s house when 59-year-old James Donald Halsell Jr., a NASA veteran who’d flown five space shuttle missions, allegedly struck the car they were riding in with his own.
Their car flipped twice, over a median. The girls, who weren’t wearing seatbelts, were thrown from it. Niomi was pronounced dead at the scene, while Jayla was pronounced dead at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The two adults in the car — their father, 37-year-old Pernell Deon James, and his 25-year-old girlfriend, Shontell Cutts — were hospitalized after the crash.
The former astronaut was charged with two counts of murder, the Associated Press reported. According to the criminal code of Alabama, one can be charged with murder if “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, he or she 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.”
A statement from Reginal King, a spokesman for Alabama state troopers, said alcohol and speed may be factors in the crash, AP reported.
James and Cutts had driven a 2015 Ford Fiesta from Brent, Ala., a small town just southeast of Tuscaloosa, to Houston, Tex., where the girls lived with their mother, to pick them up for summer vacation. The drive, stretching across four states, takes about nine hours each way.
That evening, while the recently reunited family drove across state lines in the early morning twilight, Halsell was allegedly in his rented Motel 6 room, drinking wine. According to the Houston Chronicle, he told police he’d had three glasses, but his memory appears to be unreliable — Halsell said he doesn’t remember leaving the motel. Later, police would find an empty wine bottle — which holds roughly six glasses of wine — and an empty 10-pack of sleeping pills in the room, AL.com reported.
It’s unclear whether he immediately climbed into his rented 2015 Chrysler 300, but eventually he got behind the wheel. He’d stopped in Alabama en route to picking up his son from his own native state, Louisiana, and court documents suggest he decided to continue his drive that evening.
According to those documents, Halsell had gotten lost on the small back roads of Alabama. He said he thought he was driving along Interstate 20, a major interstate that stretches more than 1,500 miles across the South from Texas to South Carolina. Instead, though, he was driving on U.S. 82, a highway so rural it only grew to four lanes in 2010.
During the drive, he allegedly drove up behind the James family on a stretch of the rural highway at the end of their drive that lacked highway lampposts and rear-ended the car, pushing it across the grassy median. The car flipped twice, and the girls were ejected from it.
Juan Ibarra was the first to come upon the wreck while on his way to an early shift working construction. The scene was chaos.
The father “was looking for his little girls,” Ibarra told the Houston Chronicle. “He was confused. His face, it was bleeding.”
They found Jayla on the highway, moaning in pain.
“I tried to talk to her and keep talking to her,” Ibarra said.
Niomi was also sprawled on the concrete, but she was silent and still.
“She wasn’t moving. Nothing,” Ibarra said. “I feel bad for her.”
While Ibarra attempted to help the family in the wake of the crash, Halsell approached him, “said nothing” and allegedly attempted to hop into the driver’s seat of Ibarra’s stopped pickup truck.
“When I saw that, I ran and took the keys and locked my truck,” Ibarra said. “I pushed him and said, ‘Stay away from my truck.'”
Halsell did just that and wandered away from the crash, disappearing into the darkness so far as Ibarra could tell.
When he was later found and arrested by state troopers, his “speech was slurred, eyes were dilated, clothes disheveled and he was unstable on his feet and smelled of alcohol,” according to the deposition obtained by AL.com. But the former astronaut said he has no memory of any of it.
It was such a blank spot on his memory that “he asked to see the victims’ bodies,” the troopers said in the deposition.
The murder charges are a far cry from Halsell’s long and impressive CV. After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy in 1978 and then receiving two master’s degrees, he logged more than 1,250 hours in space with NASA, both as a pilot and a commander of five flights, according to NASA. After the Columbia shuttle disintegrated upon reentry in 2003, Halsell was entrusted with leading NASA’s Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight Planning Team.
Halsell did not respond to interview requests by the Houston Chronicle, the Associated Press or AL.com. According to AP, “Court records weren’t available Tuesday to show whether Halsell … has a lawyer.” He was released from Tuscaloosa County Jail on a $150,000 bond at 6:30 p.m. Monday, less than a day after the wreck.
On Tuesday, Brent Mayor Dennis Stripling told AL.com, “You hate to blame anyone in situations like this, but here we have two lives gone and he got out pretty quick. It blows my mind.”
Stripling, with other city officials, has launched a fundraising effort to raise money for the girls’ burials. Donations can be made at Brent City Hall or mailed to P.O. Box 220, Brent, AL 35034.
“The churches are praying for the family, and we thought it would be a help to collect money for them,” Stripling said. “We hope people will respond.”