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Demeanor of rape suspect surprises detectives

By Maria Glod and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 4:53 AM

The detectives who had been hunting the East Coast Rapist for 14 years finally walked into an interview room in Connecticut to confront their suspect late last week. They were ready to face a combative, ruthless predator.

What they found instead was a mild, passive, talkative and even weak man, according to several law enforcement officials. Serial rape suspect Aaron H. Thomas talked about "uncontrollable urges" that he said led him to commit the crimes but did not indicate any sense of responsibility for more than a dozen attacks allegedly linked to him by DNA he left behind, the officials said.

He told detectives he had been following media coverage of the case and suspected police were closing in. After his arrest Friday in New Haven, Conn., a prosecutor said in court, Thomas had asked, "Why haven't you picked me up sooner?"

"You're expecting this big confrontation," said Mark Pfeiffer, a Fairfax County detective who began working on the case in 1999 and interviewed Thomas after his arrest. "You always try to envision what he's going to be like. Then you see this weak person."

Thomas, 39, an out-of-work truck driver with ties to the Washington area, appears to have had few close relationships in his life, detectives said. Much about him remains unknown, but he was living with a girlfriend in Connecticut, has a young child and often visited family in Virginia.

Police say they have used DNA to link Thomas to 12 rapes and other attacks on women since 1997. The crimes spanned four states, including Virginia and Maryland. Most of the assaults occurred within a few miles of where Thomas lived at different points in his life.

Detectives said they think that Thomas could be responsible for many more attacks, including some that were never reported.

Authorities said Monday that they are tracing Thomas's travels during the past 14 years and examining records from Vermont to Georgia, where he is known to have worked as a long-haul trucker and deliveryman.

A combination of old-fashioned detective work, a high-tech police database culling millions of records and a tip from someone who knew Thomas in Prince George's County led to his arrest and could unveil more crimes.

"There's no doubt that an offender like this will have twice as many [victims] as he is usually linked to," said Fairfax Detective John Kelly, who led the task force that hunted the rapist. "Obviously, he didn't have boundaries in his crimes."

On Monday, Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer and other law enforcement officials asked those who know Thomas, or women who might have been victimized by him, to contact them.

"We are still seeking information about Mr. Thomas and any victims who wish to come forward," Rohrer said. But police did not release a photograph of Thomas, citing ongoing investigative efforts in Connecticut.

Prince George's Capt. Michael Straughan said the arrest is hardly the end of the case. Detectives will try to determine whether there are unsolved attacks that could be linked to Thomas. "We have a lot more work to do," Straughan said.

Detectives described Thomas as more slight and less menacing than they had expected - he is listed in court documents as being 5-foot-6 and weighing 175 pounds. But they noted that the East Coast Rapist surprised his victims and used a weapon. And police said he probably changed his appearance numerous times over the past decade and a half.

They said Thomas was keenly aware of media coverage of the East Coast Rapist and left Northern Virginia for New England sometime last year after reading an investigative report in The Washington Post that detailed the series of crimes. The most recent rape attributed to Thomas was on Halloween in 2009, when three teenage trick-or-treaters were forced into a woods in Prince William County and two of them were sexually assaulted.

Police also said Thomas had visited www.eastcoastrapist.com, a Web site they launched last week.

They said he felt the pressure as police closed in. "He was tired of being on the run," said Fairfax 2nd Lt. Bryan Holland.

Kelly said Thomas told authorities that he worried years ago that he would be arrested when police released a composite sketch made after two teenage girls were attacked in Prince George's in 1998. Thomas, who grew up in Prince George's, had an address near the attack.

"He thought it was only a matter of time. He thought somebody would make the connection," Kelly said.

Nonetheless, the attacks continued. Detectives said Thomas purposefully changed his methods, including using a fake Caribbean accent and a variety of weapons.

Law enforcement officials scoffed at the idea that Thomas had sudden "urges" to commit the crimes. They said it appears the East Coast Rapist carefully scoped out locations and, in some cases, specific victims. Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said that the crimes were carried out with intent and that Thomas stalked his victims.

It wasn't until last week, when police launched a massive media campaign that included highway billboards and a Web site devoted to the case, that someone who knew Thomas called in a tip. That tip, police said, came through Prince George's Crime Solvers and could lead to a $25,000 reward.

The tipster said Thomas had admitted to committing an attack in Forestville and said he had been riding a bicycle when he attacked, according to court papers filed in Connecticut.

Detectives said some victims were elated to learn that a suspect had been arrested, and others were overcome by emotion at the prospect of putting a face and name to the man who changed the course of their lives.

"Those victims and what they endured is not lost on us. We were awake at night trying to find another way to go at this guy," said Fairfax Detective Paul O'Neill. "Catching this guy doesn't take away what happened to these women."

Staff writer Caitlin Gibson contributed to this report.

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