PART ONE: Pilot Error
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At Midnight on June 6th, 2016, a 59-year-old Air Force Colonel named James Donald Halsell Jr. checked into the Motel 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in a Chrysler 300 that he rented 25 hours beforehand. He was driving from his home in Huntsville, Alabama, to his birthplace, West Monroe Louisiana, to pick up his son, James. In a few hours, he’ll tell police that he had drank three glasses of wine that night.
At the same time, a man named Parnell Deon James was returning to Alabama having driven over 1,500 miles to Texas and back, where he picked up his two daughters, Jayla and Niomi, from their Mom’s house. They drove in a Ford Fiesta.
Jim and Parnell were making identical trips: picking up their children from a neighboring state to bring them back to Alabama. 11 and 13 year old Niomi and Jayla, were carpooling with Parnell to spend the summer with their Dad and the girls’ grandmother. Parnell’s girlfriend, Shontel Cutts was traveling with them in the shotgun seat. Shontel’s friends call her Bre, or Brielle, and on Facebook her nickname is “Fruitloop”.
At some time around 2:30am, James Halsell, who everybody calls Jim, leaves his motel room, drunk, and gets behind the wheel of his car, which is something he’s done before. Jim got a DUI only two years prior (April, 2014), in Palmdale California after causing another accident because of his drunk driving.
Jim will tell police that he thought he was traveling on Interstate 20, which would be very difficult for a sober person to confuse. I 20 is an elevated Interstate while Highway 82 is a dark country thoroughfare. So: thinking he’s driving on I 20 to pick up his son, two states over, in the middle of the night, for whatever reason, he exits right out of the Motel 6 parking lot, directly onto Highway 82 east, the opposite direction of Louisiana and I20, but the same direction as Parnell.
It’s 2:50 AM and he’s travelled 12 miles from his motel room toward a town called Duncanville. Jim is speeding in his rental car, a vehicle with a third more mass than Parnell’s Ford Fiesta, even with three passengers carrying their luggage for the summer.
So, the girls are in the backseat, probably asleep, they were young, and Jim approaches Parnell’s vehicle from behind at a rate much faster than the speed limit. He collides with the family’s bumper, crushing the rear of the car, sending them across the left lane into the grassy median, where Parnell’s car rolls, twice, and the centrifugal force ejects both girls from the back windows. They were not wearing seat belts (which is a crime for underaged people in Alabama, so remember this, it will play a big part of the coming months). They have braids and they smile in their Facebook photos. The car continues to roll and comes to a stop in the left lane of the 82 westbound at the 65 mile marker, where Parnell and Shontel land in their seats, traumatized and covered in broken glass.
The family was twenty minutes from home. The girls were twenty minutes from their grandmother.
The first eye-witness arrives within ten minutes and calls 911. His name is Juan Jose Gomez Ibarra and he was driving a truck to his construction job before the sun came up. Jim Halsell’s car is on fire, eventually it burns to a shell, but it probably helped to light the area as Juan arrived. Speaking to the Houston Chronicle, Juan said: “I stopped to help the people in that car”. He finds Jayla first, the older sister, in the grass of the median.
Juan is a stranger, someone who just happened to be the first arriver, a man who is not trained in helping people, and English is his second language. He says, “I tried to talk to her and keep talking to her — She was moaning and in pain.” He said he also found Niomi: “She wasn’t moving — nothing. I feel bad for her,” Juan says, “That’s when the father starts stirring looking for his daughters.” Parnell had gotten out of the car. “He was looking for his little girls. He was confused. His face, it was bleeding-”
Then Juan walks to Jim Halsell. He says, “I tried to help him — He never said nothing.”
In the next few minutes, Jim leaves his car and climbs into Juan’s truck in an attempt to steal it to flee the crime scene. Juan said, “When I saw that, I ran and took the keys and locked my truck — I pushed him.”
Police arrive at 3:14 AM. Niomi was pronounced dead at the scene and her sister Jayla was taken to the DCH regional medical center where she was pronounced dead.
According to the police report, Halsell smells of alcohol at the crime scene, his pupils are dilated, he has slurred, incoherent speech and until about 5AM he is making nonsensical statements, bouncing around and telling the police that he is “very intoxicated”. When his mind is clearer, he says that his memory isn’t complete, he does not remember leaving his motel room, he does not remember or believe that he caused an accident, so much so, that he asks the police to show him the bodies of Jayla and Niomi. The police probably did not fulfill that request, as Jayla would have already been taken to the hospital.
A spokesperson for the Alabama State Troopers, said that “alcohol” and “speed” may have been factors in the crash, but there is no clarification as to whether he meant Jim’s fast velocity, or an amphetamine, which is also often called “speed”.
When the police return to the Motel 6, they find an empty bottle of wine along with a packet of 10 (probably over the counter) missing sleeping pills.
Jim Halsell is charged, officially, with two counts of Murder, on June 6th, 2016 in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama.
He pleaded not guilty.
Now: these events took place for a million tiny reasons, the most obvious being that a man decided to get behind the wheel of a car when he was intoxicated, but this is business as usual in America: a man gets drunk and causes two fatalities on a highway. These stories have become so commonplace that unless we’re directly involved with the families we don’t see much importance or grandeur to it.
Well this case is different, or maybe it isn’t: but Colonel Jim Halsell is an American Hero (many times over), who does not seem to have a malicious bone in his body. He is one of the most seasoned Astronauts in NASA’s history, having been sent up on five separate shuttle missions, he’s worked for the companies of multi-billionaires to ensure the future of space flight, and he is one of the most proficient pilots in modern human history. Jim Halsell, the defendant in this Alabama double murder case, is one of less than 540 members of our species to have seen the Earth from afar with his own two eyes.
My involvement of this story began because I was researching a TV show and realized that this case has almost only been covered by the local news. When I ask friends in the Space community about the accident, they’ve never heard of it, or of Jim’s greatness as an astronaut, or of his two drunk driving arrests. In the midst of a new Space race to Mars, with billions of dollars at stake as well as the reputations of major international companies, there isn’t much room to discuss the failures of American Astronauts, but just as it is with men and women returning from the armed services, acknowledging these conflicts of reintegration and retirement has the incredible ability of helping others as well as preventing future catastrophe.
In the coming weeks, I hope to release more about Jim: covering his experiences at NASA and his upcoming trial in Tuscaloosa. My goal for this story, is to find out what happened, what could have changed this man so drastically from 2012 to 2016. I’ll interview as many people as I can, friends and family, state troopers, eyewitnesses, and anyone that can provide further clarity to this tragic American calamity.
PART TWO: “Falling in every direction”
Jim Halsell’s Alabama mugshot depicts a 59-year-old man who has been up all night, having survived a high speed collision. He looks very unlike his former self, the astronaut, the smiling and thoughtful man floating in zero gravity. He has a mustache and he is almost unrecognizably scared and overweight. He was released from prison on a 150,000 dollar bond. His lawyers petitioned to get Jim’s drivers license back, which they did, provided that an alcohol breathalyzer unit called an ignition interlock device be installed in his car. After the installation, a driver is forced to breathe into the unit before the car can start. Having never heard of such a thing, I was instantly torn between surprise that we would need such an absurd device in America and then the sad and honest curiosity as to why we don’t implement them for every make and model of vehicle.
His lawyers say that he has been sober since the accident.
In this episode, we go through Jim’s early life as an astronaut as I try to find out what could have possibly driven this American hero with two masters degrees to become the defendant in this Alabama double murder case.
The most unavoidable revelation that I run into every day while researching, after watching hours of footage of Jim in Space and on Earth, after speaking with people in Alabama who knew him personally, is that Jim is undeniably a wonderful man. I’ll call people asking for interviews, trying to find anyone that will speak to us and they’ll almost always happily declare, “Yeah I know Jim!” Throughout the mission footage he is a very kind, charismatic guy with an encouraging smile. He seems like a cool, ex-military, college professor that you would have had, somebody that would make you laugh whenever you saw him, somebody you’d say you were still proud to know when a stranger calls you from California, asking about a man accused of murder.
So what happened?
Jim and his brother were born in West Monroe, Louisiana to James Donald Halsell Senior (Don) and Roberta Jean. Jean taught history and Don spent 40 years working in purchasing at the Brown Paper Bag Mill in West Monroe. Don also served as the president of the Rotary Club, where he had many friends and espoused conservative American politics. Don passed away in late 2015 from a long illness. So on the day of the accident in Alabama, Jim had only lost his father 6 months prior.
Don taught Jim how to fly at a young age, and Jim went on, with no exaggeration, to become one of the best pilots in human history.
There are some documents that state that Jim started as a janitor at the Kennedy Space Center, but that could have been filed as a joke (something that a professional astronaut would fill out on a form, and his NASA Bio does say that he was recruited directly from the Air Force) but he did meet his wife Kathy Spooner at KSC in 1996 when she working as their financial analyst. They were married a year later, and they have two children; James and Kate. James was the son that Jim was picking up from Louisiana on the night of the accident.
NASA flew Jim to Space five times during his career, twice in the same year in fact, to perform hundreds of scientific experiments in zero gravity. He was on mission sts-74 which docked the American orbiter with MIR, and brought Russians and Americans together in Space. His last mission was in the year 2000, but he officially retired in 2006.
A few independent space channels on YouTube have uploaded hours worth of footage of Jim’s missions; he speaks to the camera, answers questions with the rest of the crew, and gives post-flight presentations to the press. Jim is usually the MC of the footage (he was the pilot after all, sometimes the commander), but there is always B-roll of him smiling, giving the thumbs up, being caught doing crunches in zero gravity, all the while, he’s miles away from Earth, free floating in zero gravity: what his crew-mate and astronaut celebrity, Chris Hadfield, calls “falling in every direction”.
So what do astronauts do when they return to Earth?
Many of them become politician-like figures, traveling to speak about the realizations that they have in Space; that you cannot see national borders from that height, that human beings need to unite to end climate change, and they ask people to practice the same levels of cooperation that built the international space station: the most complex collaborative effort in human history. Many have written about seeing the Earth from afar and what it does to the mind. It can be a near-religious experience that affects you for the rest of your life. In the Space industry, they call it The Overview Effect, which is a psychological phenomenon coined by the author Frank White, where astronauts come back illuminated to their presence in the universe.
For work, many astronauts take positions at tech companies, many of which build satellites or support the international and private space programs. They travel the world to speak at conferences, they write best-selling books, but most of them don’t, and some of them have to take out the cheapest motel room in Tuscaloosa.
Jim retired from NASA to become Vice President of Alliant Techsystems in Huntsville where he worked on the Ares 1 rocket. The Ares program was killed off by the Obama administration in 2009, so Jim left Alliant to become the technical director of Dynetics Inc (also in Huntsville), where he worked with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, to build non-conventional space-flight launch vehicles for Paul’s company, Stratolaunch. There, Jim developed a reusable airplane that carries a rocket high enough so that it takes off without using wasteful conventional shuttle boosters. Jim left the company in 2014.
Here is Jim recounting his first flight as a public speaker for Dynetics:
Jim is always quick with a joke and is undeniably engaging. He’s great; he’s smart and fun to watch and is exactly the kind of person you want speaking to the public about the future of space travel. You can see him comically performing self-deprecating reenactments of his first spaceflight to prove that even he was frightened his first time and that your dreams can come true through hard work and perseverance and when he says it, you believe it:
Another attribute of his that stands out in the footage is his readiness to defend his female co-workers when they are asked sexist questions by the media. (Footnote: Sally Ride, the first American woman in Space, said that all the press wanted to know was what kind of make-up she was bringing to Space and if she cried when something went wrong in the simulations, questions her male team members were not asked.) So when Jim’s co-pilot Susan Still is asked why she decided to become a “pioneer for women” and “an Amelia Earhart type”, Jim breaks from the questioning to describe what value Susan provides as a pilot and an equal on their shuttle mission. One of his master’s degrees is in the Science of Management, and no wonder. During the nineties, this was a progressive response to have about women in the sciences, so it makes for rare footage.
So he’s 59 now, and he drinks, and he gets behind the wheel (again). Maybe he thinks, ‘I’ve landed a space shuttle, a couple of times, I can drive drunk’. Or maybe, it’s something else. Maybe Jim was a casual drinker and it was a perfect storm of drinking 3 glasses of wine before being unable to sleep and ingesting sleeping pills. This is my own conjecture, but it would explain a lot. Drinking only 3 glasses of wine for a man of his height and weight would not cause him to speak incoherently for hours. If he did take sleeping pills that night, toxicologically, it would absolutely help to explain his behavior at the crime scene.
Sleeping pills are usually sedative hypnotics that when mixed with alcohol increase the nervous system effects of the drug, creating additional sedation, sometimes causing sleepwalking and in extreme cases lung failure, heart failure, and death.
Mixing these drugs can often lead to a hypnotic state where the person loses a sense of space and time. Jeffrey Dahmer used sleeping pill equivalents on his victims to make them docile and zombie-like. In this state, it would not be unbelievable that a seasoned pilot would be able to take the wrong highway for 12 miles before crashing. Again, this is conjecture.
He seems like himself in the videos that I can find from 2011–2012, then in 2014 his speech patterns become sloppier. At a public fundraiser, his speech is different, he seems drunk and he has trouble placing his microphone back into the podium.
So Jim spent his life becoming a master of control: control of enormous and complicated vehicles as well as the self-control required by NASA to become an astronaut.
What happened between 2012 and 2014 for Jim. I actually don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s why I’m so interested in this subject. What drives an American Hero with a legacy and a beautiful family to get two DUIs in two years. For my own sake, for the victims’ sakes-
how does something like this happen?
Life After Achievement
Like Astronauts, professional athletes spend their lives in training, focusing on their abilities and results. They have teams of people that assist them in reaching unparalleled human achievements, and then they have to retire, usually at young ages, and then what. They are forced to find purpose through other avenues in their lives. Unlike sports stars though, astronauts have built-in existential crises, having seen human existence as very small sphere floating in the void. It makes it difficult for them to find purpose in the minutia of everyday suburban living, mowing the lawn, paying your bills, imagining that your glory days are behind you, monogamy, etc. In fact, 70 percent of astronauts go through divorces, often within the first year of their return. Of the 30 marriages of the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury programs only 7 marriages lasted and the ones that dissolved were greatly due to Astronaut adultery. The schoolyard joke is correct it turns out: Astronauts really do get all of the “Tang” they want.
Many Olympic athletes undergo something similar and they call it “The Post-Olympic Blues”. Matthew Mitcham, an Olympic Gold Medalist for diving is someone who has met his lifelong goal of winning a gold medal, and he claims that it is still not enough to make you happy.
“It’s a really common phenomenon, because of the intensity of the emotions, the adrenaline, the endorphins, all of the stuff that comes with the Olympics. Then you are left with a crash afterwards. — Do you choose to keep on chasing those highs, because it can be quite an empty and unfulfilling pursuit. Drugs either copy the high that you get from the Olympics, or alcohol numbs the feeling- so it’s no surprise that so many athletes, or people in general, do turn to those things, because chemically, it replicates those same feelings.”
Jana Pittman, Olympic Hurdler, says (while nearly crying) that although she has a husband and children, and many things that make her happy that keep her away from training, she can’t call herself a “retired” Olympian because that will mean that she failed, having not won the gold medal.
Oscar Wilde said it best: “there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
Like sports stars, Jim leapt into his skill at a young age, he was in the Air Force right before Top Gun came out, he met his wife through the space program, and they moved to Huntsville to be close to space tech companies and airfields where he could fly his plane. This man’s entire life was flight and then he retired…
Concussion issues resurge in late-life American Football athletes. Maybe the radiation that astronauts are exposed to (apart from just fraying their chromosomes) led to a tumor in his brain that affected his personality. This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but there actually isn’t enough data on this front, we really don’t know the long-term effects of spending time in Space.
Astronauts return and they celebrate, but they don’t have many people that relate to them, going from Space to the suburbs is the ultimate culture shock. So they come back and they mow the lawn and they do the dishes, and they work for private space companies, and they’re forced to constantly relive their glory days, for years that’s all they talk about, and they try to cope with life back on Earth. Astronauts go through therapy to reintegrate into the suburbs, they speak to each other over the phone, because misery loves company. It’s not unlike soldiers returning from War: it’s like Astronaut PTSD.
As an aside, when I asked my Doctor about what he would most commonly prescribe for people suffering from PTSD, he immediately said, “benzodiazepine”. Benzodiazepine is the chemical in sleeping pills.
Jim speaks about Astronaut PTSD during the same Dynetics presentation. He speaks about the differences in training between short term and long term astronauts. Speaking about Astronauts needing preemptive psychological help, he says, “We had just poo-pooed all that. No test pilot needs psychologists to tell them how to fly. It turns out we were wrong. You do need that kind of help when you’re gonna be up there for six months at a time, and we Americans have learned it painfully.” He’s alluding to Lisa Nowak, the American Astronaut who came back to Earth and became so entrenched in a love triangle that she drove from Houston to Orlando to mace and kidnap her alleged boyfriend’s lover in the Airport parking lot. Here’s Lisa, another seasoned astronaut, in court, petitioning to have her ankle bracelet removed, describing herself shouting into her ankle when it ran out of batteries on the highway.
French Astronaut, Claudie Haignere, attempted suicide in 1996 and the tabloids created a hoax around her hospitalization that snowballed into an alien conspiracy, but it distracted from the real and shocking story, that an astronaut had attempted suicide. Overall, it seems like everyone has been missing the point: astronauts may come back as heroes, but they’re not all fine, and that’s ok.
Maybe Jim was affected by the loss of his Dad, or the devastation of the F5 Tornado that leveled Tuscaloosa in 2011, maybe the exposure to radiation had affected his behavior in the long-term, or maybe he was just 59 and became depressed with where he ended up in life.
It’s enough to make you feel bad for him, until you spend about one second thinking about Parnell James and Latrice Parler, still working every day in Alabama, deprived of their daughters.
Is this what happens when you realize that your best years are behind you, when you leave jobs and put on weight, when you undergo existential crises and are never going to be as successful and the reward regions of your brain won’t meet the excitement of your prime?
I hope not. I’d like to think that Astronauts would be more considerate of their importance and how they fit into the world. I was hoping that they’d come back like Kurt Vonnegut did from Dresden, making jokes, helping others to cope with the void. But what do we know? We’ve never been to Space.
PART THREE: The Trial
is coming soon, the next court hearing is on June 1st, 2017, but most importantly: The James family is accepting donations by mail to cover the funeral costs and attorney fees:
Please make your check payable to “Parnell James Family” and send them here.