NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Some neighbors considered Aaron Thomas an odd nuisance, a man who lifted weights in the front yard, parked a loud tractor-trailer in their residential neighborhood and ran or rode his bike unfathomable distances. His girlfriend's son called him laid back.
But authorities say the unemployed truck driver is the East Coast rapist, suspected of terrorizing women with sexual assaults from Virginia to Rhode Island over 12 years. New Haven police said Saturday that DNA confirmed Thomas is the East Coast rapist.
"It's just shocking to me," said 15-year-old Dashawn Golding, who said his mother is Thomas' girlfriend. "She's crying a lot," he said of his mother.
A woman who answered the phone where neighbors said Thomas lived with his girlfriend said she was devastated.
"I almost died," the woman told The Associated Press before she hung up without giving her name. "I'm scared to walk out my door. I'm just as innocent as the next person."
The woman, who said she met Thomas outside a hospital where she works, said Thomas' 5-year-old son was crying when he learned of the charges. There was a heavy police presence Saturday as investigators searched the house, a yellow colonial with blue shutters and a security sign on the front lawn.
Lt. Julie Johnson said DNA was collected and subsequently matched by the state police forensic lab confirming 39-year-old Aaron Thomas was the East Coast Rapist. Investigators reportedly got Thomas' DNA off a discarded cigarette.
New Haven police have a warrant charging Thomas with first-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor and he was being held on $1 million bond, Johnson said. Authorities in Prince William County, Virginia, are charging him with being a fugitive as well as rape and abduction charges and use of a firearm while committing a felony.
The East Coast Rapist is wanted for 17 rapes and other attacks in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island and Virginia that began in 1997. The cases were linked by DNA.
Authorities recently put up electronic billboards in the states where the attacks occurred and neighboring states. U.S. Marshal Joe Faughnan said a tip from Prince William County, Virginia, directed them to Thomas.
"Although the information and investigation of Thomas developed quickly over the last week or so, we should point out that investigators worked tirelessly for years pursuing this case," Johnson said. "This was truly a joint collaboration on all levels. We are proud of our investigation and hope the arrest of Aaron Thomas brings some closure to our victims and our communities."
Thomas could not be reached for comment; it was not clear whether he had legal representation. He is scheduled to appear Monday in New Haven Superior Court.
Johnson did not take questions during the brief news conference.
A neighbor said Thomas was living with a woman in at the house in a desirable neighborhood not far from where the mayor lives. The woman, who refused to give her name, said Saturday that Thomas is a truck driver and parked his tractor-trailer in the residential neighborhood, but he seemed to be unemployed and would offer to paint or rake leaves for neighbors.
The woman said Thomas once punched her husband in the face after they got in an argument over his truck.
Another neighbor said Thomas would ride his bicycle as far as Hartford and jogged many miles.
"He liked working out," said the neighbor, who would only give his first name as Jason. "He could run all day long and never stop."
Thomas was not entirely unknown to law enforcement: He had been arrested in September in Woodbridge, Conn., on a larceny charge and was released on $1,000 bond, according to public records.
He had lived previously at addresses in Maryland and Virginia, according to public records.
The assailant eluded police even though the crimes were often committed outdoors, law enforcement officials say.
In some instances, the attacker wore a mask or hooded sweat shirt to conceal his face. He typically approached women outdoors on foot and threatened them with a knife, screwdriver or a handgun, investigators say.
The only attack in New Haven came on Jan. 10, 2007. Police said the suspect entered a 27-year-old woman's bedroom through an open window and threatened to kill her sleeping infant son before assaulting her.
The last known attack occurred on Halloween night in 2009, when two teenagers on their way home from trick-or-treating in Woodbridge, Va., were raped, authorities say.
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report.