WASHINGTON — Aaron Thomas, known as the East Coast Rapist, was sentenced Friday to two life terms in prison for a May 2001 attack in suburban Loudoun County, Va.
Thomas, 41, had pleaded guilty in November to abducting and raping a woman who was moving out of her Leesburg apartment, binding her with rope and threatening her with a screwdriver before stealing her clothes and leaving her naked.
Thomas is also serving more than three life sentences for a Halloween 2009 attack on three teenage trick-or-treaters in suburban Prince William County, Md., the last in a string of at least 13 attacks linked to him by DNA in Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia and dating to the 1990s. Because Virginia has no parole — and because Thomas now has five life sentences to serve — he almost certainly will never be released from custody.
At the hearing Friday, Thomas came face-to-face with one of his victims. Tracie Saunders took the stand to describe the horror of being raped and threatened with death and the lasting effects of an attack that happened nearly 12 years ago in Loudoun.
“It took me a long time to get over it, about a year,” Saunders testified while Thomas stared down at the defense table, his head bowed. “He hurt my body, but I would not allow him to hurt my head. I became stronger than him.”
Saunders, who asked that her identity be made public as she hopes to become a victim advocate, said she lived in fear for several years and had a hard time trusting men, afraid that everyone knew she had been raped. She said Thomas changed her life in that empty apartment, when he made her fear she would never again see her children.
“I’m very glad to know he won’t be able to hurt anyone ever again,” Saunders said.
Thomas told Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne that he needs help and treatment “to figure out why and how I ended up like this. I want to be punished, and I know I need to be punished.”
Horne said sternly that Thomas’s crimes deserved the ultimate punishment he could give: one life term for rape and one life term for abduction.
“What you did to her is the same as if you had taken a knife and drove it right through her heart,” Horne said. “Instead, you drove it right through her soul.”
Thomas’s defense attorney said three members of Thomas’s family — his mother, brother and sister — defied subpoenas to appear in court Friday. Thomas’s mother, who lives in Virginia, has attended previous court hearings.
The guilty pleas in the that attack were Thomas’s first in a string of cases that date from the early 1990s in Prince George’s County to 2009 in Prince William, where he pleaded guilty to rape and abduction and was sentenced to three life terms.
Thomas has admitted — to police, in court and in interviews with The Washington Post — that he was the so-called East Coast Rapist.
In interviews, Thomas, the son of a D.C. police officer, has explained the attacks as emerging from his time as a desperate homeless man in Prince George’s in the early 1990s, when he gave in to animalistic urges. He told The Post that he was never on the run, that he committed the attacks when he felt lonely or lost, and that he, at times, was able to control his urges.
Newly released court documents in Prince William give additional insight into his behavior. In a 255-page transcript of his interviews with police on March 4, 2011, the day of his arrest in New Haven, Conn., Thomas immediately told police that they had the right man but said he wanted to dispute what he had read about the cases in the newspapers and on the Internet.
“I admit I am the person that caused all this trouble,” he told a New Haven police detective. Thomas then said he had seen that he was accused of using a broken bottle and a screwdriver during attacks — apparent references to a graphic that appeared in The Post and detailed the rapes — and he “was like, whoa, where is all that coming from?”
He told police what he told The Post: that the crimes started in Prince George’s when he was 19 or 20 and couldn’t find work or a place to live. And he echoed his previously expressed opinion that he didn’t believe the attacks were violent.
“I just went to a woman, scared her and she gave me sex,” Thomas said, according to the transcript. He would use intimidation, fake weapons and threats to subdue his victims. “You know I didn’t intend on hurting nobody and causing blood and all that stuff. You know, I didn’t put my hand to women.”
Thomas described walking the streets, noticing locations that would be good for an attack, scouting escape routes and taking advantage of “an opportunity” when a woman would come along. He said he would jump out and take the women from the sidewalk to the woods — a description that matches many given by victims of his known attacks.
“I’m almost like a predator,” he told police.
Once he began attacking women, Thomas said, he felt powerless to stop though he tried many times: “Once you do something, it’s hard to stop, something that serious, you’re not supposed to do.”Saunders’s testimony on Friday revealed that Thomas might have been stalking victims more than he let on. She said that when she saw photographs of Thomas as a younger man after his arrest, she remembered him as someone who came to look at the entertainment center she was trying to sell in preparation for her move. Law enforcement officials said it’s possible Thomas knew that she would be alone and vulnerable, planned an attack, then returned.
He looked at the attacks as random sex, something that he could pursue when he had urges.
“And then I figured out, wow, it’s that easy,” Thomas said. “That it seemed really easy.”
Thomas told police that he occasionally would refrain from attacks for an extended period of time, largely because aspects of his life would get better. He’d land a job, find a place to live, get into a relationship.
“I was doing all right then, helping people. I was a good person,” he said. “Then, it come back again. . . . That’s why I kept spreading it out, because I would do it and I would feel terrible, and then the urge would come back like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing.”
When detectives asked Thomas how many times he raped women, he said he thought it was about 16 to 20 or so, though he said he couldn’t remember all of the attacks, nor did he keep count. When asked how many rapes there were in Prince George’s, he said, “A lot.”
Thomas said he felt better after he was arrested, because his capture would put an end to his “sickness.” Describing his arrest as “a relief,” he added, “Yeah, I don’t like living like that.”
Thomas said that he changed his appearance several times over the years as the different composites were released by police investigating the rapes, and that he saw the billboards the FBI sponsored in the month before his arrest. He said that the composites got increasingly close to what he looked like, and that he was surprised the people he knew didn’t identify him.
Consistently, Thomas said that he needed help to stop his “problem” and acknowledged that he never truly understood why he had attacked so many women.
“I need help. No use saying sorry, I need help. Definitely need help,” Thomas told a Fairfax County detective.
Thomas said he was attuned to the news media and would attack women and then watch for coverage of the rapes. In the late 1990s, he remembered reading about a man on a bicycle attacking women: “I was the man on the bike. I remember that black bike.”
He said he would feel remorse, and the rapes would stop for a time, then they would pick up again. He said he stopped after the Prince William rapes because of the intense media coverage and a sense that he would be caught.
Authorities chose Prince William to prosecute Thomas first because it was the jurisdiction where the most recent attack occurred. That attack also was the most brazen, involving three teenage trick-or-treaters he picked at random on Halloween 2009. Police narrowly missed catching Thomas in the rain-soaked wooded ravine where he brought the girls. An exhaustive manhunt for the then-unknown attacker led police to Thomas in March 2011.
Thomas was arrested in New Haven, where he was living as an unemployed truck driver and where he attacked a woman in her apartment in January 2007. Authorities there agreed to transfer him to Virginia, with the understanding that they would not proceed with their case should Thomas receive a lengthy sentence in the commonwealth, according to law enforcement sources.
Detectives also have been investigating cases in Fairfax County and Prince George’s, and law enforcement sources said Friday that those jurisdictions are preparing their cases against him. Detectives from both counties attended Thomas’s sentencing in Prince William.
John Erzen, a spokesman for Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, said prosecutors are still investigating six cases against Thomas, although he has not been formally charged with any crimes.
Thomas told The Post that there are additional cases in Prince George’s that predate the cases police have linked to him, including his first rape, which he said occurred along Marlboro Pike in the early 1990s when he was homeless and squatting in an abandoned pet store. There also are several cases in suburban Fairfax, Va., near where Thomas lived with a former girlfriend.