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Suspect in East Coast rapes could stand trial in Virginia

NEW HAVEN, Conn.  — Connecticut prosecutors will try to send a man suspected in rape cases along the East Coast to face trial first in Virginia, where a prosecutor asked for him to be extradited to answer for “heinous crimes.”

Aaron Thomas was arrested in March in his hometown of New Haven, and authorities say DNA confirmed that he is responsible for rapes and other attacks on 17 women from Virginia to Connecticut, including five in Maryland, over the span of a decade.

New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington would not discuss why Connecticut had decided to extradite Thomas, who is planning to challenge the move.

Prince William County (Va.) prosecutor Paul Ebert said Tuesday that he petitioned to have Thomas returned to Virginia, where he faces potential life sentences, as soon as possible.

“He committed heinous crimes here,” Ebert told The Associated Press on Tuesday. He added: “From the day he was charged, I wanted him back here to be tried.”

The 40-year-old Thomas pleaded not guilty in March to a charge of raping a woman in New Haven in 2007.

Joseph Lopez, the public defender representing Thomas in Connecticut, said a hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 28 to consider his challenge to the extradition attempt.

Lopez said Connecticut authorities have held Thomas for more than eight months and the state’s desire to extradite him now would violate his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

He said marshals had two warrants when they arrested Thomas on March 4: a fugitive from justice warrant from Prince William County and another charging him with sexual assault in New Haven. Authorities could have initiated extradition proceedings on the fugitive from justice charge in March, but instead served him with an extradition warrant earlier this month.

“Why at this particular junction?” he asked.

The first assault that authorities say they connected to Thomas was in 1997 in Forestville when a man pulled a gun on a woman and forced her into the woods, then fled on a bicycle. Seven months later, a woman was raped behind a restaurant garbage bin in Maryland. The following year a 16-year-old girl was raped, also in Maryland. Authorities said the same man then started attacking women in Virginia, until two victims were raped in the same attack in Maryland in 2001.

Police said the suspect resurfaced in 2006 in New England, peeping on a girl doing her homework in Rhode Island before her screams scared him off. Two teenage trick-or-treaters were raped in 2009 in Woodbridge, Va.

Authorities had mounted a large-scale public outreach campaign, putting up electronic billboards in the states where the attacks occurred and in neighboring states. DNA from a cigarette that police saw Thomas discard after leaving a New Haven court was used to confirm that Thomas was the man wanted in the attacks, a prosecutor has said.