Aaron Thomas would go for walks that had almost a scripted ending. He’d see a woman. His heart would race. His hands would shake. He’d approach her. He’d scare her into submission.

Then he would rape her.

“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.”

Thomas 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. His crimes, which spanned nearly half his life, gripped the region with the kind of fear that comes from an unknown man, lurking in the darkness, attacking strangers who were doing such everyday tasks as walking home from work, waiting for a bus, moving out of an apartment or even sleeping in their own bed.

In hours of telephone interviews with The Washington Post from his jail cell in Prince William County, Thomas for the first time publicly acknowledged that he attacked women in several states. He said he has struggled to understand why he did it, and why he did it so many times — more than a dozen rapes by his count, although police think there were probably many more.

Thomas’s unusual pretrial confessions offer the first real picture of the man who eluded police for decades. Interviews with Thomas, his family and others close to him tell a brutal story about the troubled son of a D.C. cop who grew into a ruthless criminal. He was a doting father figure and fun-loving companion but also jealous, violent and prone to sneak out at night, when he would prey on the vulnerable and hide his actions from everyone.

He was street-smart, tough, physically chiseled and unpredictable. Thomas was also careless enough to leave his DNA at 13 different attack locations, according to police, creating a long trail that would inevitably tie him to them all. Loved ones said he hinted several times that he had done terrible things, but he was never specific and they never pressed him. Those around him didn’t put the pieces together, or they didn’t want to. So he got away with it for years.

Now, Thomas is poised to accept responsibility for his crimes. He is scheduled to plead guilty on rape and abduction charges in Prince William County on Tuesday for the Halloween attacks and in Loudoun County on Nov. 30 for a 2001 rape in Leesburg, law enforcement officials said. Thomas faces the possibility of several life terms in prison.

Thomas began his conversations with The Post with a lie. He blamed the crimes on an alter ego named “Erwin” — a character he told his family and police about after his arrest in March 2011. But Thomas eventually admitted that he was faking a split personality and that Erwin was just a name he gave to his problem.

Thomas met with psychiatrists for months as his defense attorneys prepared for an insanity defense — an argument that would center on Thomas not knowing right from wrong at the time of the rapes or having irresistible urges. But late last month, his attorneys informed the court that they would not pursue that defense.

“I need help with this problem. It’s serious,” Thomas said. “I don’t think I’m crazy, but something is wrong with me.”

Thomas said he knew all along that what he was doing was wrong. “It’s something not right because people are getting hurt,” he said.

No memory of their faces

The rapes began when Thomas was a young man living in a burnt-out pet store in Forestville and became for him a joyless addiction, he said.

“There is no feeling. It’s just bad,” said Thomas, 41. He said he felt like an animal and simply didn’t care about anything. “There’s no happiness. . . . You’re going after something that in the end makes you feel like garbage.”

Thomas said he carried out the rapes without regard for his victims. He didn’t know them, and they didn’t know him. Several victims have said they no longer can feel safe in public and have a hard time trusting anyone.

Although the women remember the attacks in vivid and horrifying detail, Thomas doesn’t even remember their faces. He has a muddled sense of events and said there “was no thinking” involved in any of it.

But because Thomas was good at escaping after the rapes and had evaded police for decades — even as authorities got very close to him at times — he was able to strike repeatedly. Ultimately, after public awareness campaigns, high-tech data mining and an anonymous tip, police collected a Newport cigarette butt that Thomas discarded outside a courthouse in New Haven, Conn. They checked the DNA on the filter, and authorities said they had their man.

It wasn’t until a year after his arrest, at a preliminary hearing in Prince William, that Thomas said he realized all the harm he had caused. With his mother sitting nearby on a courtroom bench, Thomas pushed his forehead into the table in front of him, barely able to listen as the three young women described being forced to drop their bags of Halloween candy before two of them were raped in a wooded ravine as a cold rain fell.

“It was terrible,” Thomas said, recounting the first time he faced one of his victims. “I was melting in my seat. I was disgusted.”

Only Thomas knows the full extent of his crimes, and police say they are continuing to examine dozens of cases up and down the East Coast that could be his, dating to the early 1990s. Prince George’s County police confirmed this year that they have used DNA to link a July 2000 Hyattsville rape to Thomas — the 13th case with conclusive DNA evidence. Thomas said in interviews that there were at least a few attacks that predate the police timeline, which officially begins in 1997.

The first attack

The first one, Thomas said, was on a summer night in the early 1990s, perhaps 1992 or 1993. He doesn’t remember exactly. He was in his early 20s and had hit rock bottom.

He had been kicked out of his parents’ home in Fort Washington. Homeless, jobless, and penniless, Thomas was squatting in the pet store on Marlboro Pike. It was not far from his childhood home in Suitland, an area he knew well.

A fire had pushed the pet store out of business and left the small building next to Bishop McNamara High School vacant. Some cages and fish tanks remained inside, and Thomas barricaded a room for himself in what he called the “Bird House.” He said he felt rejected by everyone he knew.

“I was sitting in the building just doing nothing,” Thomas said, describing what he thinks led to his first rape, a crime that apparently was never reported. He got an urge, and his heart started to race. He walked outside. “It was like, bam, who cares?”

Thomas said he saw a prostitute walking down Marlboro Pike and got her attention. He then scared her into a patch of woods and raped her.

“I felt like an animal,” he said. “I didn’t care.”

Thomas said he returned to his makeshift home in the pet store and went to sleep. When he awoke the next morning, he felt horrible. Sad. Scared. Ashamed. It was a feeling, Thomas said, that accompanied each attack.

Police on the East Coast Rapist task force said Thomas described himself as living as a survivalist in those days. They said Thomas told detectives after his arrest that he targeted prostitutes in the early years, victims who were relatively easy targets and were unlikely to report such a crime.

“He knew right from wrong,” said 1st Sgt. Liam Burke of the Prince William police. “He admitted it was something he couldn’t shake.”

Thomas said there were at least three more rapes before 1997. Prince George’s police said they have re­investigated “dozens and dozens” of rape cases during Thomas’s time in the county and have used DNA evidence to definitively link five of them to Thomas, all between 1997 and 2001.

“It’s quite possible that Thomas’s memory is not so clear, and there could be cases out there that have never been reported,” said Maj. Mike Straughan, head of Prince George’s police’s criminal investigations division. “There are always going to be parts of the puzzle that are unknown.”

What police do know is that they have 13 attacks with DNA evidence and 13 rapes from those attacks. Two attacks were thwarted sexual assaults, and two involved two rape victims each.

Police say Thomas’s DNA first appeared at a crime scene in the same patch of woods across from the abandoned Forestville pet store on Feb. 19, 1997, when a 25-year-old woman was attacked about 12:45 a.m. She reported that a man approached her on a 10-speed bicycle, started a conversation and then forced her into the woods with what appeared to be a gun.

Thomas said he never actually used a firearm in any of the attacks, instead employing things that looked like a gun, such as the hard plastic handle of an umbrella or a replica pistol, to scare the women. Often he would back off if a woman put up a fight. He said he had no idea how many possible attacks he didn’t go through with.

Constant turmoil at home

Aaron Hajj-Malik Thomas was born in August 1971; his father was a D.C. police officer and his mother a career Geico employee. His middle name honored Malcolm X. He grew up with a half brother and a half sister, but he was the only biological son of Donald B. Thomas, whom most everyone called “Big Don.”

Big Don and his son had a particularly rough relationship, according to relatives. Thomas recalls beatings with a thick police-uniform belt and his father slamming him into walls. Family members described screaming matches and constant turmoil.

“When we were both small, my father was a strict disciplinarian. Very strict,” said Michael Battle, Thomas’s older brother. “You didn’t do anything out of sorts or it was hell to pay. When we started to fight back in our way, problems started. With Aaron, it seemed to go way down a rabbit hole. It went further.”

Living in a home with two working parents, an emphasis on education, meticulous order and no one wanting for anything, Thomas was at once the family comedian and alarmingly unpredictable.

“Aaron was a funny child. He always wanted to make me laugh. Very loving,” said his mother, Shirley Thomas. “In first grade, he started acting out. To me it was just Aaron. He was a different child. He would act out but would tell me he was sorry.”

Battle, who served as a Marine on the front lines of the Persian Gulf War, said Thomas was “volatile” as a child and was always finding his way into trouble, almost as if he were oblivious to consequences. Thomas once beat another elementary school student with the chain from a playground swing, earning him a suspension from the Suitland school, Battle said. Thomas pulled dangerous pranks, such as super-gluing his brother’s hands to his bed or slipping him sleeping pills to find out what would happen. He once lit a firework indoors at a relative’s home on the Fourth of July, starting a fire.

While living in Suitland, he dropped the family’s Lhasa apso — named Ewok, after the characters in “Return of the Jedi” — into a post hole that had filled with water, nearly drowning it.

“From day one, he’s had a control problem,” Battle said. “Odd behavior. Couldn’t control his temper. It was thing after thing after thing after thing.”

Because of his behavioral problems, Thomas spent a good deal of time away from home or mainstream schools. As a teenager, he once spent two weeks at a psychiatric facility in Georgetown, and after setting a girl’s hair on fire — accidentally, he said — he spent his first three years of high school at the Edgemeade treatment center in Upper Marlboro, he and his family said.

The small psychiatric facility and alternative school — a nonprofit center that closed in the past decade — required its students to have a certified mental health diagnosis. Past directors said public agencies would refer students who were not able to function in public schools, and many had severe depressive disorders and some form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Thomas said Edgemeade was a last resort for him, because he remembers not being allowed to return to public school. He commuted from Fort Washington — 40 minutes each way — on a bus with one other student.

James McComb, who was executive director of Edgemeade from 1979 to 1989, said mental illness or severe emotional disturbance were the base requirements for entry. He said that he did not specifically remember Thomas — who said he was there from about 1986 to 1989 — but that three years at the facility would have been “an exceptionally long period of time.”

“The goal is remediation of emotional conflict, remediation of some of the stress, trauma, whatever it is that contributes to dysfunction,” McComb said. “The objective is to moderate behaviors and get children to a point where they can function well, and that happens quite often.”

It is unclear what Thomas’s diagnosis was, as neither he nor family members recall, and records from the facility appear to have been destroyed. Thomas said he received therapy at Edgemeade and was able to bring his behavior under control. He ultimately left the program and completed his senior year at Friendly High School after his family moved to Fort Washington. He graduated in June 1990.

“The therapy seemed to help, for a while,” Shirley Thomas said.

‘Tossed out like a piece of trash’

Donald Thomas kept moving up at the D.C. police department, ultimately rising to lieutenant, a rank he held until his retirement on his son Aaron’s 20th birthday in 1991. He appeared in photographs in Jet magazine and later,  when he was a harbor master patrolling the Potomac, in the Southwester community newspaper. The family keeps a photograph of Big Don shaking hands with President George H.W. Bush in front of his patrol boat.

As a high-ranking police official, family members said, the elder Thomas was embarrassed by his son’s run-ins with the law, such as when he stole a bicycle as a teenager or got into fights. Shirley Thomas said she would be the one to go down to the police station to gather their son because her husband didn’t want to get involved. Those close to the family recall Donald Thomas telling people that he thought his son would turn out to be like Donald’s brother, who at the time was serving a lengthy prison sentence for murder in Connecticut.

“His father had high expectations, and Aaron was always messing up, always doing something he shouldn’t have,” said Tara Thomas, a cousin.

After graduating from high school and spending a year in the family’s Fort Washington home, Thomas learned from Big Don that he had to go.

“I was tossed out like a piece of trash,” he said. “It was kind of like putting a bird out of the nest but he didn’t know how to fly yet.”

Thomas said he hitchhiked with only the clothes on his back. He lived just off 14th Street NW for a short spell in 1991. While there, he was arrested three times for cocaine possession and was placed on probation, according to court records.

On April 1, 1992, Thomas had a violent run-in that he said deeply affected him. Scheduled to testify in D.C. Superior Court the next day against a robbery suspect, Thomas was shot in the buttocks as he was installing a stereo system in his car. Police think it was a case of witness intimidation at a time when gun violence was gripping the city.

Post columnist Courtland Milloy happened to be near the corner at 15th and R streets when the shots were fired, and he wrote a detailed account of the aftermath, quoting Thomas — identified only as “Aaron” in the column — as he nearly bled to death on the sidewalk in front of him. Milloy, who remembers the incident vividly, said Thomas came running toward him after he was hit.

“His face was so contorted, he was in shock,” Milloy said. “He couldn’t walk, and finally he just collapsed.”

Thomas said that shooting caused him to lose trust in people, and it is something he said comes up often in discussions with the psychological experts who are working with him.

After he recovered, he lived in Forestville and then briefly moved into his brother’s home nearby, but that situation quickly deteriorated. Thomas was on his own.

Thomas frequently speaks of living in the abandoned pet store as a major turning point in his life. He said being homeless, at times living in abandoned vehicles and apartments, created something inside him that he says he couldn’t control.

‘He was a sweetheart’

Thomas bounced around looking for jobs through much of his 20s. But he eventually got his commercial driver’s license and landed a job driving a truck for a soft-drink distributor in Capitol Heights.

While on a route in the District in the summer of 1994, Thomas slowed his truck in front of a store on Wisconsin Avenue, taking notice of Jewell Hicks. She remembers Thomas saying something out of the window, maybe whistling. “I was bending over watering plants, and I guess he liked what he saw,” Hicks said.

Thomas continued to the nearby Giant Food store to make his delivery, striking up a conversation with a man inside. He told the man about the woman he had just seen and how awestruck he was. He later learned that he was talking to Hicks’s father, who introduced the two that day.

“I just thought he was cool,” said Hicks, now 39. “He was a sweetheart.”

The couple’s relationship blossomed quickly, and they were soon inseparable. Thomas was drawn to Hicks’s infant son, Jorell Cruz, and became a fixture in the child’s life, helping to raise him.

Hicks said Thomas was meticulously neat; she said he would habitually clean their apartment, often throwing away anything that wasn’t properly put away. They were playing house and almost started a family of their own. On Sept. 28, 2000, the couple had a son, named Maliki Yanshua Thomas-Hicks. He died the same day.

“It was the first time I saw Aaron cry,” Hicks said. “He bawled his eyes out.”

Not long after, the couple purchased a fixer-upper on Bonita Court in Woodbridge, a suburban home on a cul-de-sac.

“It was like husband and wife,” Hicks said. “We were putting together a home and trying to fix it up.”

Thomas was devoted to Hicks’s son, she and Cruz, now 18, said. They would make trips to Kings Dominion and Arundel Mills mall, the beach at Ocean City, Chuck E. Cheese’s, the movies. Thomas would take the young Cruz to work with him when he was a driver for an Alexandria lumber company and give the boy a few dollars for helping with the stacks of plywood.

Thomas would lavish him with gifts, once surprising the boy by decorating his room from floor to ceiling in Spider-Man regalia, and another time as a fishbowl.

Cruz described Thomas as the only real male role model in his life.

“He did a lot for me when I was little,” Cruz said. “Most of the knowledge I have today came from that man. He was a very smart, educated person. . . . He always called me Sonny, like I was his own son. He loved me like I was his. I loved him like he was my father.”

Cruz said Thomas was always a joker. Once, as the family was headed to a movie, Thomas raced back into the house and grabbed a Jamaican hat with fake dreadlocks.

“The whole time we were there, he pretended to be Jamaican. He was doing the accent and everything,” Cruz said. “If you were around and in my shoes, you would have thought everything was normal. You’d never suspect anything was wrong with him. He was just always teaching. He showed me everything at a young age.”

But underneath the devotion, there were signs of trouble. Hicks suspected that Thomas was a thief, saying he would often go out at night and come back with new items for the house, such as appliances, furniture and new tile, that she thought came from construction sites where he made deliveries.

And their relationship was tumultuous. Hicks said Thomas was overprotective, even ruthless at times, getting violent at even innocuous interactions between her and other men. And she said he had a nearly insatiable sex drive.

“If you didn’t give it to him, he took it,” Hicks said, saying that at times she felt as if it were akin to marital rape. “He would get mad if I didn’t give it to him.”

She remembers several times when she was able to fend him off, and he would get up and leave the house, sometimes for hours. She said she guessed that he was going out to “take something” and never thought anything else. She says now that she suspects some of the rapes might have occurred on nights when she resisted his advances.

Three rapes police have attributed to Thomas occurred within a half-mile of where the couple lived in Forestville in 1997. Similarly, police say, Thomas committed three rapes within a mile of the home Hicks and Thomas shared in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County in 1999.

Thomas acknowledged that there were attacks in that area but said he can’t remember details or numbers.

“I did so much, I can’t remember,” he said, adding that it all blends together. “It’s the same thing.” Over and over again.

Cruz said he remembers Thomas leaving late at night and returning sometimes hours later. He also remembers Thomas and Hicks arguing about sex.

“He got upset, but every time he gets upset, he’d leave out and come back home the same night or the next morning, and they’d make up,” Cruz said. “I thought he was giving my mom some space, but who knows what he was doing out there.”

Thomas said the rapes had nothing to do with his relationships. But he said rejection, generally, was a common theme in his attacks; that he would go walking and get his urges at times when he felt down or when things weren’t going well in his life.

One attempted rape in November 2000 came less than a month after he buried his son. That attack happened along Interstate 395, not far from the lumber company where he worked.

Another rape, in a Leesburg apartment complex on May 24, 2001, came a few weeks before Thomas was charged in an incident in which he smashed Hicks into a bathroom window. Hicks said she was attacked when Thomas went through her cellphone and saw she was texting a male friend. A police report states that Hicks was not injured, and Thomas was given a suspended jail sentence.

Thomas said the Leesburg rape occurred as he was driving home from a delivery in the area. He said he stopped his truck at a gas station, parked, bought some cigarettes and went walking through the neighborhood.

Even after the domestic assault, Thomas and Hicks tried for years to work it out and had some success. Thomas said that he was able to “control” his urges at times and that he sometimes went years without committing any rapes. Members of the interstate police task force think some of those gaps probably include rapes they don’t know about, but Prince William police said they have no unsolved cases from those years that would match with Thomas.

Hicks said Thomas was “very smart, very intelligent” and seemed, in hindsight, to want to tell her some deep secret. He would approach the issue, then ominously back away.

“He said: ‘You name it, I’ve done it. You don’t want to know what I’ve done or you wouldn’t want to be with me,’ ” Hicks said. “It seems like he wanted to talk about it.”

But he never did, and Hicks never pushed him. On Thanksgiving 2003, the couple went to visit Thomas’s parents in Clarke County, Va., where they had retired. Big Don pulled his son aside and told him to take care of his mother and gave him a set of keys to the house, a strange request because the two barely spoke. Big Don implored him to make more friends and to take care of himself.

On Feb. 4, 2004, Big Don slipped into his garage, got into the passenger seat of his Chevy Impala and started the engine.

‘I don’t think he’s going to stop’

Although Thomas was never close to his father, Big Don’s suicide meant they lost any chance at reconciling. A short time later, Thomas’s relationship with Hicks fell apart after 10 years.

His cousin, Tara, persuaded Thomas to move in with her family in New Haven, and he took over the third floor of their large home in 2004. He immediately began looking for work, first landing a job driving a delivery truck, but he always seemed to run into trouble.

“He lost most of his trucking jobs doing careless things that weren’t intentional,” she said. He once ran a truck into a low overpass, he spilled his freight on a highway, and he crashed gates while making a delivery.

Tara Thomas said her cousin was a loner who didn’t have many friends, and he filled his spare time with exercise, going to the gym, sometimes running or biking for miles. He was in exceptional physical shape — photos from that time show him lean and muscular — and at one point he aspired to be a physical trainer.

While driving a truck for Yale-New Haven Hospital in summer 2004, he met Dorothy Golding.

“I think he was weird, but he was nice,” Golding, now 41, said of first meeting Thomas. “He would send me flowers with fish in the vase at work, and nobody ever did that. He would do little stuff like that. He was thoughtful.”

Golding said that it blossomed into a romance and that she sometimes went on road trips as he made deliveries, once accompanying him to Boston. Thomas said he regularly drove to Rhode Island, where he would drop off scrap metal from crushed vehicles, and he made runs into New York and New Jersey.

Golding described Thomas as emotional, often crying about his lack of success. He desperately wanted to be a father, and he soon got his wish: Golding gave birth to a boy on July 14, 2005, at the hospital where she and Thomas had met about a year earlier.

But the couple’s relationship became increasingly strained. They would fight, and he would sometimes sleep on an enclosed back porch, he said. Other times, he would leave.

“It would mostly be at night,” Golding said. “I would go to bed, and he would go. He’d be gone for an hour or two, and he would come back. He would come back and say he was tired and hungry.”

Thomas said those nighttime jaunts were typically long walks or bike rides, sometimes for miles. On Jan. 10, 2007, one such journey led him to an apartment complex in New Haven, where he saw a young mother alone with her child in a first-floor apartment.

Police think Thomas entered through an unlocked window. Thomas said that it was dark and that there was a baby in the bedroom.

The victim said she awoke after 1 a.m. to find a man in her bedroom. He threatened to kill her 11-month-old son before placing a pillowcase over her head and raping her. Afterward, he admonished her for leaving her windows unlocked with a baby inside. At the time, Thomas’s son was about 18 months old.

“I don’t think he’s going to stop,” the victim told The Post in an interview in 2010, before Thomas was identified as a suspect. “He sees he’s getting away with it and that gives him the confidence to keep going. I think there’s a sickness and he can’t control himself.”

Sometime after that attack, Thomas was visiting his mother in Virginia when he issued her a similar warning.

“After his dad died, he would caution me to make sure the windows were locked,” Shirley Thomas said. Once, Thomas appeared in an upstairs room after going outside, having climbed up and entered through an unlocked window. “I went upstairs, and he was upstairs. I learned my lesson.”

Shirley Thomas said her son would occasionally call her from Connecticut very emotional and hyper, complaining about his relationship with Golding. He seemed on the cusp of saying something that he could never get out.

“He would say, ‘I’ve done some awful things,’ ” Shirley Thomas said. “I’d ask him what it was, I’d ask him to tell me. He’d be quiet. ‘No, Ma, I can’t.’ ”

Three girls in fear for their lives

Thomas and Golding’s relationship continued to sour. By October 2009, Thomas was looking for a break, so he came back to Northern Virginia to visit family and help Hicks move out of her apartment in Arlington County. Hicks had recently given birth to a daughter with special needs, and Thomas doted on the baby while helping to pack.

Hicks, who participated in the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 2006 and 2007 as a member of the Army National Guard, had military memorabilia scattered around her home. Sitting on the mantel was a replica 9mm handgun with a chrome-plated barrel and black grip — a fake she bought for 10 euros while shopping in Pristina. It looked real, but when she pulled the trigger, it emitted a flame. A lighter.

On Halloween, Thomas grabbed the lighter and jumped in Hicks’s gold Chrysler 300 sedan. He regularly borrowed the car, and Hicks assumed that he was going out to run errands.

Thomas said he headed to Prince William to buy a shirt at a store he knew from living in Woodbridge. As he drove near his old house, he spotted three teenage girls walking with bags of candy.

“I pulled in and parked,” Thomas said.

He stopped in a CVS parking lot. He grabbed the lighter. He cinched the hood of his black coat over his face. He stepped out into the rain.

“He said he had the urge and went down to Prince William because he knew the area,” said Burke, the county police sergeant.

Claiming that there was no real planning, Thomas said he forced the girls into a wooded area because it was close by. He led them down a steep slope, ordered them to line up and then told them to lie down on the soggy leaves.

The teenagers would later testify that they were terrified, believing that the gun in their backs was real and that their attacker would kill them if they tried to run.

“I was praying,” one victim said. “I thought that was it. I thought I was going to die.”

After one of the girls deftly used her smartphone to text family and friends and ultimately call 911 without the attacker noticing, police began to swarm the area.

“I heard a whole lot of footsteps,” Thomas said, “then I ran.”

Thomas went straight through the woods, tossing the gun lighter aside and circling back to the parking lot. He said he calmly walked up to the Chrysler.

“Police were right beside me,” Thomas said, parked all around him. “I just got in the car and backed out.”

He drove back to Hicks’s apartment and went to sleep.

In the days that followed, Hicks said, Thomas was paranoid. He would look out the windshield and up into the sky, searching for helicopters. He was on edge.

Hicks said she figured out that Thomas had taken her lighter, and she wanted it back. After he picked her up from work one evening, she drove him to Woodbridge, to where he said he had left it.

“He said he had hid it in the woods because he didn’t want to get caught with it,” Hicks said. At the time, the rapes had received little publicity, and Hicks was unaware of the crimes. “I just wanted my lighter.”

Hicks said she drove up to the tree line behind the shopping center and let Thomas out; she then parked nearby. Thomas was in the woods for 30 to 45 minutes, she said, and Thomas confirmed that he searched the crime scene and the surrounding area within days after the rapes, coming up empty. Law enforcement officials said that they, too, never found it.

Thomas began acting shifty, Hicks said, and wanted to leave for home in Connecticut immediately. And he did.

‘What took you guys so long?’

The Halloween rapes drew more attention than any of the previous cases, in part because the attack involved three teenage trick-or-treaters. News media attention grew, as did the urgency within the multi-state police task force. They were trying to catch the man with a new moniker: the East Coast Rapist.

A renewed public relations effort, in tandem with the FBI, spawned billboards along the Interstate 95 corridor with sketches of the attacker.

Thomas told The Post that he never read any of the stories about the cases nor saw the billboards. But Burke said Thomas told police that he was aware of the news coverage and the billboards and that he had gone to the task force’s Web site on a computer in his house in New Haven.

“After the last one, with the media coverage, he knew he had a problem,” Burke said. “He said he had been following the media for a while.”

Thomas’s name first popped onto a short list of potential suspects in February 2011, as detectives developed background information on — and eliminated from consideration — hundreds of men who might have had a connection to the attacks. Shortly after the billboards went up, an anonymous Crime Solvers tip sent Thomas to the top of that list. Police began following him.

In New Haven, Thomas was facing a court hearing in the theft of an expensive bicycle. As police and U.S. marshals observed him, they noted that he appeared paranoid, took odd routes to and from home, and was constantly watching his back. During a break in his court hearing, he tossed aside a spent Newport cigarette butt.

Police surreptitiously collected it and sent it to the crime lab. The DNA was a match to the East Coast Rapist attacks.

On March 3, 2011, Thomas made a series of unusual phone calls to family members. He told them that he was facing trouble, but he kept referring to the charge about the bicycle. His mother and brother thought something was up.

The next day, as Thomas stepped off a bus near his house, law enforcement officers swarmed him. He knew immediately what was going on. He asked them: “What took you guys so long to get me?”

Thomas recounted the moment almost wistfully. It was the first time he could shed his facade and come clean.

“It was a relief,” Thomas said, adding that he wanted to be caught, to be stopped. “There was something in my stomach. Something was choking me forever.”

At the New Haven police department, Thomas sat in an interrogation room and told his story, first to New Haven detectives and then to detectives from other jurisdictions, describing what he could remember of the attacks. When a Prince William detective sat down, Thomas told him that he knew the detective was there because of the Halloween case.

Thomas said he wanted to tell police then what he had done because he desperately needed to tell someone. He also thought that they would help him try to understand what was wrong with him and perhaps how he could get help.

Police have said in court that Thomas confessed to the rapes almost immediately, something Thomas confirmed. He also made fleeting references to police about an alter ego he called “Erwin,” a dark being inside of him that Thomas likened to the devil. He went so far as to draw a picture of Erwin with horns and a tail next to himself, “Aaron.”

Thomas was scheduled to go to trial in the Halloween rapes in July, but the case was continued so his attorneys could have psychiatrists further evaluate him for a possible insanity defense. Thomas, who initially refused to speak with his attorneys or cooperate with experts, said that he began meeting with them in June and that they were helping him understand his situation. In the court filing in late October, defense attorneys said they were no longer pursuing an insanity defense and would not offer expert testimony to support such an argument.

In numerous phone interviews beginning in April, Thomas initially told The Post, in hushed tones, that Erwin was responsible for the crimes. He said that “Erwin would show up” and things would happen in the middle of the night, and that “he only comes around when I’m lonely.”

Thomas said he had some success controlling Erwin but that in jail, he was losing that battle. He blamed repeated suicide attempts and cuttings — including his wrists and genitals — on Erwin trying to kill him: “I want a doctor or therapist to tell me why Erwin makes me hurt myself and hurt other people.”

Prosecutors and an appointed mental health expert asserted that Thomas was faking — in legal terms, malingering — and that a tested IQ of 40 had to have been Thomas sandbagging.

On June 10, after Prince William Circuit Court Judge Mary Grace O’Brien ruled that Thomas would not be allowed a second chance at a mental competency evaluation before trial, he called The Post. In a clear voice, he said he had something to reveal: “There is no Erwin. I made all that up.”

Thomas’s defense attorneys have declined to comment on the case.

Thomas described the crimes as something that had control over him, something that happened when he felt rejected or adrift.

“There was no thinking. It was just done,” Thomas said, adding that it became like a habit. “I have no idea where my mind was.”

The preliminary hearing in Prince William, Thomas said, was the first time he recognized the damage he had done. The faceless, nameless objects he had attacked now had names and faces and families and feelings. He was the bogeyman.

He is still unable to explain why he didn’t come forward himself, despite ample opportunity, and said he has long regretted all of it, even as the rapes continued. He dismissed the idea that the rapes might have been all about power — “I don’t hate women, and I don’t want to hurt people” — and said he doesn’t know why his “problem” manifested itself as rape.

“I used to think to myself I could have turned out a serial killer,” he said.

He said he tried to tell Hicks, Golding and his mother, but something always stopped him. He didn’t want the people who loved him to see him as a monster. He bristles at the term “rapist” — in phone conversations, he called it the “r-word” — but said he understands that what he has done is bad and that he needs to be punished.

“People are hurting and I’m hurting. . . . People are angry,” Thomas said. “I don’t like that stuff. . . . I don’t want to hurt anybody else. There’s a problem that definitely needs attention.”

A mother’s apologies

Listening to the young women describe her son raping them was too much for Shirley Thomas. She quietly stood up and walked out of the Prince William courtroom in the middle of testimony.

“I love my son,” Shirley Thomas said. “It was so diametrically opposed to everything you know. It’s just hard to hear.”

Before leaving the courthouse, she walked up to relatives of the victims and apologized. For her son. For herself. She doesn’t remember what she said.

“I think about those women, those young girls, a lot,” she said.

Sitting in court, Shirley Thomas thought about her own daughter, who used to run alone on a trail in Upper Marlboro.

“One day, she showed me where she ran, and I said she was asking for trouble,” the mother said. As she heard the testimony about her son approaching teenagers in the dark, shoving a weapon into their backs and forcing them into the woods, something washed over her. “I saw him as the person I was afraid of.”

Cruz said the whole thing came as a shock to him, as he never imagined the father figure he grew up with doing anything wrong. He said the Halloween rapes hit him hardest because it was near his old home and school.

“You have to be careful who you’re around,” Cruz said. “Ten years and we didn’t know. We did not have any clue, signs, nothing. . . . Those girls could have been girls I went to elementary school with. It just bothers me thinking about how he could hurt people like that.”

Thomas said he knows he was dangerous, and although he wants to believe that deep down he’s a good person, he knows that people view him as the devil. After seeing the young women in court, he said, it struck him that his victims were real people — daughters, granddaughters, nieces, sisters and mothers.

“I understand I need to be punished,” Thomas said. “Now tell me what the hell is wrong with me.”

Jennifer Jenkins and Julie Tate contributed to this report.