At first, the fatal DUI crash that killed two young girls just outside of Tuscaloosa looked like so many other tragedies caused by drunk driving. Then the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s office realized who they had just arrested: a highly-decorated and famous NASA astronaut.
James Donald Halsell Jr. was an accomplished NASA pilot who flew with five separate Space Shuttle missions. Now, the families of the young victims have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the NASA veteran, who is also facing reckless murder charges.
At 2:50 a.m. on June 6, investigators say Halsell hit a Ford Fiesta from behind at a high rate of speed, sending the Ford tumbling across the road. Niomi James, 11, and Jayla Parler, 13, were not wearing seat belts and were ejected from the vehicle. Police say Halsell was visibly intoxicated after the crash, and a search of his hotel room revealed an empty bottle of wine and sleeping pills.
According to a report written by a responding officer, Halsell was so intoxicated he actually attempted to steal the vehicle of a Good Samaritan who stopped to help.
Tragically, the girls’ families had just picked them up from a summer camp. Two people were also injured in the crash, and at least one surviving victim is filing a personal injury lawsuit against the former astronaut.
About 95 to 96% of personal injury cases like this are settled outside of court, but Halsell will have to face a judge for the murder charges.
As a pilot, Halsell docked with the Russian Space Station Mir. He went on to command three more Space Shuttle flights, and helped build the International Space Station.
The retired astronaut was a leader at Nasa. After the Columbia disaster, Halsell led NASA’s Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight Planning Team, and also served as the manager of Shuttle Launch Integration. Before joining NASA he flew F-4 fighter jets and was trained on nuclear weapon deliveries. After NASA, he accepted a job in the private sector with ATK launch systems.