By Josh White and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 5, 2011; A01
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 had 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.
At one point, law enforcement sources said, Thomas was a long-haul trucker, which would have had him traveling up and down Interstate 95. Sources said he also regularly visited his mother in a town not far from an apartment complex in Leesburg where a rape occurred in 2001.
Fairfax Detective John Kelly, who has been working on the case for years, had long suspected that the East Coast Rapist was a trucker because some of the rape scenes were near truck stops or places where truckers were known to spend the night. One of the Fairfax rape attempts was near such a spot, and the attack in Rhode Island was a few blocks from a company that regularly received truck shipments.
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert declined to comment on the facts of the case but said the arrest is the culmination of excellent police work over a long period.
"It shows excellent cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the use of recently developed investigative techniques," Ebert said, praising Connecticut's quick response in analyzing the DNA recovered this week.
Police and prosecutors have long said that the cases would be relatively straightforward because DNA links them all to one person.
The first attack linked by DNA occurred Feb. 19, 1997, in Forestville when a man on a 10-speed bicycle pulled up alongside a 25-year-old woman who was walking home from her job at a fast-food restaurant. He started chatting. Then he pulled out a gun, forced her into nearby woods and raped her.
After a series of attacks in Prince George's County, the rapist began targeting women along Fairfax County's Route 1 corridor, a busy area of strip malls and apartment buildings. The attacks continued in Leesburg, and then he struck again in Fairfax and Prince George's counties.
In 2006, after four years of no known attacks, a young girl in Cranston, R.I., saw a stranger poking his head through a sliding- glass door that led to a back deck. The man ran, but DNA left behind matched that of the rapist.
The following January, the man raped a New Haven woman as her infant son slept in a crib in the same room.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Paul Duggan contributed to this report.