The man suspected of sexually assaulting at least 17 women from Virginia to Rhode Island asked, "Why haven't you picked me up sooner?" when he was arrested last week, a prosecutor said Monday in court.
Aaron Thomas, 39, wore sunglasses and a baseball cap as he appeared in New Haven Superior Court in Connecticut on a charge of raping a woman in 2007 in her New Haven home in front of her baby. He kept his head cast down throughout the hearing.
Prosecutor David Strollo said the unemployed truck driver described himself as having "a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality regarding women.
Over the weekend, investigators searched a yellow Colonial with blue shutters where neighbors said he lived with his girlfriend and 5-year-old son.
Strollo said Thomas made incriminating statements about his involvement in the rapes to a marshal. In addition to asking "Why haven't you picked me up sooner?" Thomas told investigators, "What took you so long to get me?" Strollo said.
Authorities say DNA from a cigarette butt confirms Thomas is the so-called East Coast Rapist wanted for attacks in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island and Virginia. Thomas had lived previously in Maryland and Virginia, according to public records.
Investigators say there are 12 attacks with 17 victims, including 14 sexual assaults, two abductions where victims either escaped or were not assaulted, and one peeping offense where DNA was found.
Authorities recently put up electronic billboards in the states where the attacks occurred and neighboring states. Police and prosecutors at a news conference Monday in Manassas, Va., credited Thomas' arrest to a detailed, anonymous tip from Prince George's County, Md., that was generated from the publicity campaign combined with a relatively new, highly detailed police database.
Authorities in Virginia's Prince William County, where the news conference was held, are charging him with rape, abduction, being a fugitive and using of a firearm while committing a felony.
Thomas has not been charged in Maryland or Rhode Island.
Courtroom spectators gasped as Strollo described the cases, which include the 2007 New Haven case and the rape of two teenage trick-or-treaters in 2009 in Woodbridge, Va.
Thomas' public defender, Joe Lopez, said he tried to waive his client's appearance at the court hearing, which a judge denied. Lopez declined to comment afterward. Bail was set at $1.5 million.
Asked about the sunglasses, Lopez said police may use identification procedures such as a lineup to see whether accusers can identify Mr. Thomas as their assailant.
"However, we want to ensure that any identification procedure is conducted in a fair manner and safeguard Mr. Thomas' right," Lopez wrote in an e-mail. "Bringing him into an open court for potential witnesses to identify is not a fair identification procedure."
Lopez said in court papers that authorities "will undoubtedly try to connect this defendant to multiple unsolved sexual assaults complaints in multiple jurisdictions."
"Although some of these cases may be tied to the defendant through DNA, there are multiple cases where it appears there is no DNA evidence and therefore prosecutors will have to pursue an identification procedure and determine whether those complainants can identify this defendant as their attacker," Lopez wrote.
Strollo said DNA from a cigarette that police saw Thomas discard after leaving a local court was used to confirm that Thomas was the man wanted in the attacks, which began in 1997. He said Thomas has lived in New Haven for about four years.
Thomas was arrested Friday on Connecticut charges of first-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor. Authorities said he tried to hang himself Saturday in his cell but was returned to jail after a brief hospital stay.
At the Virginia news conference, Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert and Fairfax County Police Detective John Kelly said the case would have been solved years ago if Virginia police had been allowed to use what is called "familial DNA" searching.
In some cases, a DNA profile may not present an exact match in law enforcement databases but is close enough to indicate a family connection that could be used to track down a suspect. Most states, though, bar use of familial DNA searches because of privacy concerns.
Because Thomas did have a family member whose DNA was in a police database, Ebert said, that tool could have allowed police to home in on Thomas years ago. Virginia is now moving toward the use of familial DNA searches.
In general, cracking the case was difficult because it spanned so many years and so much area, Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer said. "We always suspected a tip from the public would help us solve this case," he said.
The database credited with helping catch a suspect, the Law Enforcement Information Exchange, includes tens of millions of records generated from a variety of sources — everything from arrest records and traffic tickets to police reports and even pawn shop records, indexed by time and location.
Police continue to investigate whether Thomas might have been responsible for other attacks that were never reported, Rohrer said. Thomas faces multiple life sentences in Virginia, but Connecticut will likely prosecute him first, Ebert said.
Ebert, a prosecutor for more than 40 years who has handled numerous high-profile cases, including the conviction of D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad, said the arrest of Thomas was one of the happiest days of his career.
"This case concerned me almost as much as the D.C. sniper case did," Ebert said, noting the fear generated within the community from the rapist's most recent attack, the Halloween 2009 assault on three teenage girls as they were trick-or-treating. "I'm hopeful the public is now more at ease."
Barakat reported from Virginia.