Authorities are crediting a new digital billboard campaign in the capture of a suspected serial rapist accused of terrorizing women with sexual assaults in at least four states over 12 years.
Police say DNA confirmed that 39-year-old Aaron Thomas, an unemployed truck driver, is the man law enforcement dubbed the "East Coast Rapist."
Federal authorities arrested Thomas on Friday after receiving an anonymous tip linking him to the assaults. 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 all linked by DNA.
During a press conference Monday, law enforcement officials credited a digital billboard campaign, launched last week, in helping to track down the suspect. The FBI, aided by police departments in seven states, plastered black and white sketches of the rapist's face on billboards in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.
Thomas, who appeared Monday in New Haven Superior Court, tried to hang himself Saturday in his cell and was returned to jail after a brief hospital stay.
Prosecutor David Strollo said Monday that Thomas asked, "Why haven't you picked me up sooner?" when he was arrested last week.
Strollo said Thomas described himself as having "a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality regarding women. He said Thomas made incriminating statements about his involvement in the rapes to a marshal.
Thomas' public defender, Joe Lopez, said he had attempted 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.
Thomas was living in a two-story home in New Haven with his girlfriend at the time of his arrest, ctnow.com reports.
A task force of U.S. marshals and local police followed him around after authorities received a tip from Prince William County, Va., according to the station. Investigators reportedly tested the DNA off Thomas' discarded cigarette and found that it matched the DNA of the attacker.
"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.
Police have a warrant charging Thomas with first-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor. 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.
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 sweatshirt 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 in Woodbridge, Virginia, were raped, authorities say.
The Associated Press contributed to this report