Authorities Nab Suspected 'East Coast Rapist,' Blamed for 17 Attacks Since 1997

Hunt spurred by 17 attacks in 4 states ends with arrest of Aaron Thomas

March 4, 2011— -- Police have arrested the man they believe is the "East Coast Rapist," a violent predator accused of attacking and sexually assaulting 17 women and girls across four states for more than a decade.

"Aaron Thomas was taken into custody in New Haven at his home without incident by the U.S. Marshal's Fugitive Task Force," the New Haven, Conn., Police said in a prepared statement Friday evening, adding that Thomas, 39, "has been identified as the East Coast Rapist."

Before Thomas was identified, law enforcement authorities said the suspect was arrested Friday in Connecticut after DNA linked him conclusively to a dozen rapes in that state, Virginia, Maryland and Rhode Island since 1997.

The New Haven Police promised to discuss the arrest further with the media Saturday at 10 a.m. ET.

Authorities recently launched an aggressive public information campaign to catch the rapist, featuring a police sketch of the man displayed on electronic billboards, on posters, and on the website, which attracted more than 44,000 hits in 12 hours when it was launched last month.

The billboards and posters were distributed in states all along the East Coast, including one in New York's Times Square.

Known for stalking his victims and attacking them with weapons as diverse as guns and broken bottles, authorities also tried finding the rapist by comparing the DNA he left at crime scenes to that of family members whose DNA had been tested by police.

The last known attack attributed to the suspect took place in 2009, when two 17-year-old girls were raped at gunpoint after returning from a night of trick-or-treating in Prince William, Va. A third girl was able to escape and contact her mother with a cell phone. The rapist escaped as cops closed in on him.

All of the attacks occurred at night and near major highways. The first known rape occurred in Maryland.

From there, the rapist left a trail of terror and DNA along the Eastern Seaboard to Virginia, then to Connecticut and Rhode Island, before making his way back to Virginia.

Authorities said the rapist stalked and studied his victims, apparently attacking them in neighborhoods he knew well. He knew when they were most vulnerable, such as when they were home alone with their children or had failed to lock windows or doors, investigators said.

"He's like a lion looking for prey," one of his victims, a woman who was raped in her Leesburg, Va., apartment in 2001, told the Washington Post.

The rapist wielded a handgun or a knife in several attacks, a screwdriver and broken bottle in others. After some assaults he left feces near the crime scene.

The rapist was described as 6 feet tall, and as a trim black man in his 30s who smoked, had a smooth voice, often wore black hats and camouflage clothing, and once had a chipped tooth.

In August 2009, law enforcement officials in Virginia began efforts to use familial DNA in the search for the rapist. That effective, yet controversial method identifies suspects through the DNA of a close blood relative who already has been in the criminal justice system after being arrested or convicted.

ABC News' Kevin Dolak contributed to this report.