“Aaron was a funny child. He always wanted to make me laugh. Very loving,” said his mother, Shirley Thomas. “In first grade, he started acting out. To me it was just Aaron. He was a different child. He would act out but would tell me he was sorry.”
Battle, who served as a Marine on the front lines of the Persian Gulf War, said Thomas was “volatile” as a child and was always finding his way into trouble, almost as if he were oblivious to consequences. Thomas once beat another elementary school student with the chain from a playground swing, earning him a suspension from the Suitland school, Battle said. Thomas pulled dangerous pranks, such as super-gluing his brother’s hands to his bed or slipping him sleeping pills to find out what would happen. He once lit a firework indoors at a relative’s home on the Fourth of July, starting a fire.
While living in Suitland, he dropped the family’s Lhasa apso — named Ewok, after the characters in “Return of the Jedi” — into a post hole that had filled with water, nearly drowning it.
“From day one, he’s had a control problem,” Battle said. “Odd behavior. Couldn’t control his temper. It was thing after thing after thing after thing.”
Because of his behavioral problems, Thomas spent a good deal of time away from home or mainstream schools. As a teenager, he once spent two weeks at a psychiatric facility in Georgetown, and after setting a girl’s hair on fire — accidentally, he said — he spent his first three years of high school at the Edgemeade treatment center in Upper Marlboro, he and his family said.
The small psychiatric facility and alternative school — a nonprofit center that closed in the past decade — required its students to have a certified mental health diagnosis. Past directors said public agencies would refer students who were not able to function in public schools, and many had severe depressive disorders and some form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Thomas said Edgemeade was a last resort for him, because he remembers not being allowed to return to public school. He commuted from Fort Washington — 40 minutes each way — on a bus with one other student.
James McComb, who was executive director of Edgemeade from 1979 to 1989, said mental illness or severe emotional disturbance were the base requirements for entry. He said that he did not specifically remember Thomas — who said he was there from about 1986 to 1989 — but that three years at the facility would have been “an exceptionally long period of time.”