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.