The alleged East Coast Rapist, his hands and feet bound, walked slowly into Prince William County Circuit Court on Tuesday in what was supposed to be a formality that would mark the end of a chapter for the victims.
Aaron Thomas, 41, walked around the defense table and took a seat, fiddling in his cuffs. He has been linked by DNA evidence to 13 attacks along the East Coast, but the crimes to which he was about to plead guilty were perhaps the most brazen — the abduction of three teenage trick-or-treaters and the rape of two of them near Woodbridge in 2009.
Thomas has admitted the crimes to police and to The Washington Post. He had signed an agreement to plead guilty and was expected to ratify that agreement in front of Judge Mary Grace O’Brien.
O’Brien asked him to stand.
“Guilty or not guilty?” the clerk asked.
Thomas paused. Looking ahead at the judge, he spoke clearly but softly — barely audible in the silent courtroom: “I don’t know which way is right or wrong,” he said. “I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.”
With that, O’Brien ordered a break and asked that Thomas talk over the signed plea deal with his attorneys.
After the recess, Thomas was led back into court. Thomas’s attorney Ronald Fahy told O’Brien that “there’s been no change.”
The judge said she would plan to hear the case on its scheduled trial date, Jan. 14.
Thomas was ushered back to the county jail. He did not appear to make eye contact with anyone.
Thomas acknowledged in interviews with The Post, in an article published Sunday, that he was responsible for the attacks — as well as for other sexual assaults to which he has been linked by investigators.
He faces the possibility of several life terms in prison.
Fahy, Thomas’s attorney, declined to comment after the hearing.
Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who was prepared to drop three firearms charges against Thomas and had said that he hoped to spare the victims from testifying at a trial, did not know why Thomas declined the deal, he said.
Ebert said that over his career as a prosecutor, he has seen other plea deals rejected at the last minute. Because of his familiarity with Thomas, he said he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the turn of events.
“He’s an unusual character,” Ebert said.
Thomas is scheduled to plead guilty Nov. 30 to a 2001 rape in Loudoun County, said Heather Williamson, a spokeswoman for the county’s commonwealth’s attorney.
Thomas told The Post that he borrowed an ex-girlfriend’s Chrysler 300 sedan to go to Woodbridge to buy a shirt on Halloween 2009. As he drove near his old house, he spotted three teenage girls walking with bags of candy.
Using a lighter that looked like a handgun, he forced the teens into a wooded ravine, he said.
The teenagers testified at an earlier hearing that they were terrified, believing that the gun was real and that their attacker would kill them if they tried to run.
“I was praying,” one victim said. “I thought that was it. I thought I was going to die.”
Thomas struggled to explain his actions in the Post interviews, describing the crimes as something that had control over him and that happened when he felt rejected or adrift.
“There was no thinking. It was just done,” he told The Post.
Thomas could face additional trials in Virginia, Maryland and Connecticut, where he is accused of attacking women near places he lived or to which he traveled, often during his work as a truck driver.
The Halloween attacks and ensuing news media attention renewed efforts to search for the rapist, who eluded authorities for more than a decade.
The path for Thomas’s attorneys is far from certain — they filed a motion weeks ago saying that they would not pursue an insanity defense.