NEW HAVEN, Conn. March 7, 2011— -- The man accused of raping 17 women in four states over a dozen years asked the police, "Why haven't you picked me up sooner?" a prosecutor said in court today.
Aaron Thomas, 39, made his first court appearance in a Connecticut court today as police departments along the East Coast closed 12 years of cold cases and celebrated the mix of old-fashioned investigative work and modern technology that led to his arrest.
Police said that Thomas' DNA positively connects him to a dozen rapes and sexual assaults attributed to the so-called "East Coast Rapist." He was arrested Friday in New Haven, Conn.
When cops finally caught up with Thomas after a 12 year manhunt, Thomas asked the arresting officers, "Why haven't you picked me up sooner?"
Thomas appeared in court wearing a tan shirt, black ball cap and sunglasses. His wrists and ankles were shackled and he was surrounded by five marshals. He kept his head down through the hearing and never spoke.
Prosecutors said Thomas displayed a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality when it came to women and told the court he confessed to the rapes following his arrest.
Neither Thomas nor his lawyer entered a plea on his behalf. Bond was set at $1 million in the sex assault case and an additional $500,000 bond set for an extradition case.
In the rape for which he is being charged in Connecticut, Thomas is accused of breaking into a woman's bedroom and assaulting her while her 4-month-old baby slept in the room. According to court documents, Thomas threatened the woman he would kill the baby if "she made any noise."
When prosecutors listed the ages of Thomas' alleged victims, there were audible hisses and gasps from the gallery.
Thomas, who is accused of violently attacking women and girls with a variety of weapons in Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island, tried to hang himself Saturday in his jail cell hours after his arrest.
As he was led out of the courtroom into an awaiting police car, someone shouted: "Why did you rape those women, Aaron?"
Police used a variety of new technologies to pinpoint Thomas, including digital billboards, a specially designed website, an electronic criminal database that allowed disparate departments to share information, and a controversial DNA technique that tests whether a suspect might be related to people whose DNA has been previously collected by police.
Police describe their first break in the case in 2009, when the East Coast Rapist was first unmasked by a victim, allowing cops to create their first composite sketch. From there they plastered his image on billboards from Virginia to Massachusetts and set up a website, eastcoastrapist.com, which, which attracted more than 44,000 hits in 12 hours when it was launched last month.
Police are keeping the website active, asking women who believe they might also be victims of Thomas to come forward.
East Coast Rapist Asked Cops 'What Took You So Long?'
Virginia police already had Thomas on a shortlist of possible suspects after employing a technique called familial DNA. After further receiving tips naming Thomas, he was tracked by cops in Connecticut. When he discarded a cigarette butt, investigators were able to positively link his DNA to that left at 12 crime scenes associated with the East Coast Rapist.
The day Thomas dropped the cigarette he was apearning in court on an unrelated charge. The cops assigned to trail him, and watched as he discarded a cigarette on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. Cops then picked up the butt and tested it for DNA.
The DNA on that butt, would eventually land him in front of a judge in the same courthouse, charged with one of the most egregious patterns of serial rape in decades.
Thomas will likely be tried in Connecticut first before being extradited elsewhere to stand trial.
Prosecutors in Virginia say he is facing six rape counts, which each carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"This case concerned me almost as much as DC sniper case," said Paul B. Ebert, the prosecutor for Prince George's County, Va. "It was music to my ears to hear he had been arrested."
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.
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' Don Ennis contributed to this report.