Suspect in East Coast rapes arraigned in Virginia

MANASSAS, Va. — A Connecticut man who police believe is responsible for a series of sexual assaults along the East Coast over more than a decade was arraigned Wednesday in Virginia on charges of raping two teenage trick-or-treaters in 2009.

Aaron Thomas

Aaron Thomas, 40, was extradited Tuesday from Connecticut to Virginia and made an initial appearance Wednesday morning in Prince William County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

He appeared through a video hookup from the county jail and, unlike the other inmates awaiting their hearings, was shackled at his wrists and ankles. Asked if he understood the charges against him, Thomas replied “No,” and mumbled for a court-appointed attorney. He hung his head throughout the brief hearing.

Before he was extradited, his public defender in Connecticut said he had been consulting experts about a possible mental health defense. After Wednesday’s hearing, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert said he would not be surprised if a similar defense were offered in Virginia.

Ebert said he sought to try Thomas first because the charges against him in this jurisdiction are especially heinous, and that it was hard to imagine a more disturbing crime than what Thomas allegedly committed in the Woodbridge area on Halloween 2009 — abducting three trick-or-treaters at gunpoint in the Woodbridge area, and raping two 17-year-olds. The third victim, age 16, was able to send a text message to her mother seeking help, and the attacker was forced to flee as police lights and sirens approached.

“When you have a serial rapist, it always strikes fear in the heart of the citizenry,” Ebert said, noting that some parents had been reluctant to let their kids trick-or-treat after the attack.

In all, authorities believe Thomas is responsible for rapes and other attacks on 17 women from Virginia to Connecticut over the span of a decade. Many of the cases, including the Woodbridge rapes, are linked by DNA evidence, and police say a DNA sample obtained from a cigarette butt smoked by Thomas connects him to the crimes.

Thomas was arrested in March in Connecticut and had been held there on charges connected to a 2007 rape in New Haven. But Connecticut agreed to extradite Thomas after what Ebert said were long conversations with his Connecticut counterpart. Ebert emphasized the potentially lengthy prison term Thomas could face — in all he faces eight felony counts, several of which carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and maximum sentence of life in prison.

Under the terms of the extradition agreement, Thomas would not be returned to Connecticut if he gets a sentence of 60 years or more in Virginia.

Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Scott Bailey scheduled a preliminary hearing for Jan. 25.

Ebert also said Wednesday that the victims in the Halloween assault are willing to testify against him at trial.

Defense lawyer Ronald Fay, who was appointed by the judge Wednesday to represent Thomas, could not immediately be reached for comment.