Aaron Thomas, who says he is the man known as the ‘East Coast Rapist,’ on his way to court. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

The Post ran an extraordinary story today, by Josh White, based on hours of interviews with Aaron Thomas, who “says he is the East Coast Rapist: the man who terrorized women in the Washington area and New England beginning in the early 1990s, culminating in an attack on three trick-or-treating teenagers in Prince William County in 2009.”

Police have more than his confession to go on; Thomas left DNA at 13 different “attack locations.” But he admitted to White that he was lying still when he told police an alter ego called “Erwin” was responsible for the attacks: “There is no Erwin. I made all that up.”

It was only after seeing some of his victims in court, Thomas said, that he realized for the first time that they weren’t objects but real people he’d caused real harm. Yet even now, he “bristles at the word ‘rapist’ — in phone conversations, he called it the ‘r-word’….People are hurting and I’m hurting.”

As fascinating as the story is, though, one thing I hope readers won’t take away from it is any confirmation of moldy stereotypes about how a rapist looks or acts; yes, Thomas clashed with his stern dad, drowned a puppy as a kid, and has been in trouble ever since. He has been homeless, and his mode of attack often involved jumping out of the shadows late at night.

That M.O. isn’t the norm, though; only 13.8 percent of rapes are perpetrated by strangers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while 12.5 percent of attacks are carried out by a member of the family, 2.5 percent by an authority figure, and 40 percent by an acquaintance. Slightly more than half were good enough at cloaking their criminal impulses that their victims were willingly involved with them at some point, too, so stereotypes definitely aren’t keeping us safe.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political reporter who anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.