East Coast rape suspect likely to face first trial in Prince William County

November 22, 2011

The alleged East Coast Rapist likely will be prosecuted first in Prince William County and could be transferred to Virginia soon pending the results of a hearing scheduled for next week in New Haven, Conn., law enforcement officials said.

Police have linked Aaron H. Thomas, 40, to a series of rapes and other attacks on women that began in Maryland in the late 1990s and continued in Virginia, Connecticut and Rhode Island over more than a decade.

Police and prosecutors say they have DNA evidence linking him to at least a dozen attacks and suspect him in at least five others. Police arrested him in March after collecting his DNA from a discarded cigarette butt following a lengthy manhunt. Thomas pleaded not guilty to a charge in Connecticut, where he has been held since his arrest.

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said Tuesday that he is hopeful Thomas will be transferred to Prince William soon to face charges connected to an attack on three teenagers on Halloween 2009.

In that case, the last known attack linked to the East Coast Rapist, Thomas allegedly approached the group of trick-or-treaters with a gun and forced them into a wooded ravine. It was there, police said, that Thomas attacked two of the girls in the darkness and rain. The third girl was able to secretly text her mother and call police, who interrupted the rapes but narrowly missed nabbing the suspect as he fled through the woods.

DNA collected from the attacks linked them to a string of rapes throughout the Washington region and in New England.

“These cases here were particularly heinous,” Ebert said. “It’s hard to think of a scenario worse than three girls who are assaulted while out trick-or-treating.”

Ebert said the case in Prince William is strong: Police were able to link it to Thomas with DNA evidence, the victims are available to testify, and it is the freshest known attack.

“The evidence, we think, is fairly conclusive,” Ebert said.

Although charged with seven counts in Prince William, prosecutors likely could bring in testimony about other attacks — in Leesburg and in Fairfax and Prince George’s counties as well as those in New England — as evidence of motive, intent or a pattern.

Thomas has ties to Virginia and Maryland: He attended a Prince George’s high school and regularly visited his mother in Clarke County, Va., authorities said. He also worked as a long-haul trucker, which police said could have put him near attacks along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Police had been looking for a suspect in the string of rapes for more than a decade, but the Prince William case re-energized the hunt. Detectives in Prince William and Fairfax re-examined evidence and used high-tech data systems to narrow a field of suspects.

The case broke open in the spring, when media attention and an FBI public-awareness campaign led to a tip from an acquaintance of Thomas’s. Police learned that he had been in Prince William at the time of the Halloween attack and had later moved to New Haven, where there had been several cases linked to the series years earlier.

By moving the case to Prince William, authorities are handing Ebert another high-profile serial crime that affected several states. Federal authorities chose Ebert’s office to prosecute John Allen Muhammad, held in the Washington area sniper attacks, for capital murder in 2003. The office secured a conviction and death sentence.

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