East Coast Rapist sentenced to life in prison for 2009 attack on teenage trick-or-treaters


Aaron Thomas arrives in police custody at an airport in Manassas on Nov. 29, 2011. Escorting Thomas is Detective Steve Piaskowski with Prince William County Police. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
March 1, 2013

Aaron Thomas, who admitted that he raped numerous women in several states over two decades, will remain in prison for the rest of his life after a Prince William County judge on Friday sentenced him to more than three life terms for a Halloween 2009 attack on three teenage trick-or-treaters.

Circuit Court Judge Mary Grace O’Brien gave Thomas, 41, the maximum sentence on several of the charges, which included rape and abduction, telling him that he “took a lot more than sex from those girls,” causing them to lose their innocence, their sense of security and their ability to trust.

The sentence was the first handed down in the East Coast Rapist case — a series of more than a dozen rapes and other attacks dating to the early 1990s — and it effectively makes any future sentences moot. There is no parole in Virginia.

The Halloween 2009 attack in eastern Prince William shocked the Washington region, reenergized the investigation and ultimately led police to solve the lingering serial crimes with Thomas’s arrest in March 2011. The rapes began in Prince George’s County and included attacks in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Police think there are likely more that they haven’t discovered.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert and assistants James Willett and Amy Ashworth used Friday’s sentencing hearing to show the lasting impact of Thomas’s crimes, calling two of the Halloween victims to testify. Both, now college-age, said the rapes left deep emotional scars.

“I would try to avoid leaving the house and avoid going out anywhere public,” one of the young women said. Before Thomas was arrested, she said, she was afraid he would return and had frequent nightmares.

Both of the young women turned to Thomas, sitting in waist chains a few feet to their left at the defense table, and spoke directly to him as several people in the courtroom shed tears. At least four of Thomas’s victims were in the courtroom, as was Thomas’s mother.

“I forgive you even though you hurt me really bad,” one of the women said. The other said: “I forgive him and I pray for him, and I pray for his family that they will have peace.”

The mother of one of the victims also testified, through tears, saying the attack shook their worlds and left her feeling guilty because she wasn’t able to protect her daughter from harm. “After she was raped, she just shut down to everyone,” the mother said. “She was always sad, always crying.”

Thomas, who sat still with his head bowed through much of the hearing Friday afternoon, stood and recited a long speech from memory before O’Brien sentenced him. It was self-deprecating — he called himself “a pathetic failure” — and he blamed his “immoral and unjustifiable” actions on abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his late father, who was a D.C. police officer. He said he lacked ethical standards, suffers from psychological and emotional problems, and always wanted someone to stop him from hurting people. “I’ve mercifully prayed for help,” Thomas said. “I was too scared and afraid to talk about this dysfunction.”

Jennifer Zary, one of Thomas’s defense attorneys, spent much of the hearing questioning Mark Hastings, a psychological expert who evaluated Thomas. Hastings said Thomas has a number of psychological disorders, including a sexual deviance disorder that led him to seek sex like a drug addict might seek a fix: “It’s like a severe addiction . . . it’s not something one cures.”

Ebert argued that Thomas has shown no remorse and would reoffend. “The only way to keep him from reoffending is keeping him out of society,” Ebert said.

O’Brien did just that, sentencing Thomas to three life terms plus an additional 80 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced later this month in Loudoun County in a separate rape case.

The serial rape case had stymied investigators up and down the East Coast for many years, though the attacks were linked by DNA evidence collected at the scenes. Because the DNA was not in any database, police knew there was one attacker but had no idea who he was. It appeared he attacked at random and did not know any of his victims.

The Halloween 2009 attack, in a rain-slicked ravine near Dale City, led to a massive manhunt. In March 2011, detectives collected Thomas’s DNA from a cigarette butt outside a courthouse in New Haven, Conn.; matched him to the crimes; and arrested him. Thomas immediately confessed, according to police.

In lengthy interviews with The Washington Post, Thomas said he started raping women while homeless, destitute and desperate, getting to a point where he didn’t care about anything. He said his first rape, in the early 1990s, was of a prostitute along Marlboro Pike.

“They were objects,” Thomas said. “Whoever came down the street, an object. . . . It’s awful. It’s scary. . . . I don’t know why I couldn’t just stop.”

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