Tip yields arrest in East Coast Rapist case

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 12:00 AM

The long search for the elusive East Coast Rapist yielded an arrest Friday after a tip came in from someone who knew the suspect. Detectives secretly picked up one of his discarded cigarette butts, had it tested and learned the DNA was a match, law enforcement officials said.

Four law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case identified the suspect as Aaron H. Thomas, 39. He has worked as a trucker and was taken into custody in New Haven, Conn.

The East Coast Rapist has been linked by genetic evidence to a series of rapes and other attacks on women that began in Maryland in 1997 and continued in Virginia, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Police have described him as a cold and fearless predator who carefully watched his victims and used a gun, a knife, a broken bottle or a screwdriver to overpower them. The most recent known attack occurred on Halloween 2009 in Prince William County when the rapist forced three teenage trick-or-treaters into woods at gunpoint and sexually assaulted two of them while the third frantically texted and called for help. Prince William officials said the suspect was arrested on a warrant related to that attack.

Thomas has ties to Virginia and Maryland. He attended a Prince George's County high school and regularly visits his mother in Clarke County, Va., law enforcement officials said.

Investigators from four states and the FBI have spent countless frustrating hours searching for the rapist, culling through police and traffic records, reexamining the accounts of victims, talking to neighbors and collecting DNA samples. They have ruled out hundreds of possible suspects.

The breakthrough in the case came just as detectives predicted it would: with a tip.

Early this week, police launched a media campaign, posting composite sketches of the attacker on digital billboards from Virginia to Rhode Island. They created a Web site, www.eastcoastrapist.com, that detailed the attacks, and multiple news media outlets featured the case.

Law enforcement sources said an acquaintance of the suspect called authorities after spotting those media reports. Detectives were interested because the name matched one they already had on a short list of potential suspects.

Police immediately began watching Thomas in the New Haven area. Law enforcement sources said that Thomas made a court appearance in New Haven on a larceny charge on Thursday and that police were able to recover a cigarette butt he discarded during a break.

That cigarette butt - and saliva left behind on it - went to the Connecticut Department of Forensic Sciences for DNA analysis, and a comparison was completed overnight, law enforcement sources said.

Thomas was arrested Friday afternoon, law enforcement sources said. The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed that a suspect had been arrested in the East Coast Rapist case.

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