Can we learn anything from the East Coast Rapist, a man who spent almost half his life raping at least a dozen women in several states? Maybe not, since says he has no idea "what the hell" is wrong with him.
The Washington Post spent hours talking on the phone with "East Coast Rapist" Aaron Thomas from his jail cell, where he is awaiting a trial that will almost certainly end in several life terms in prison. At times, he lied — he first told the Post he had an alter ego named "Erwin," a devilish character "responsible" for his crimes whom he also initially told family and police about but later admitted he made up — but most of his account is corroborated by those close to him, as well as his victims.
We'll assume you weren't expecting the Post story to be a fun-filled beach read; Thomas's story is as dark as dark gets. It's the story of a sad, angry, disturbed boy with dangerous tendencies who grew up to be a sad, angry, disturbed, and dangerous man. Reporter Josh White describes Thomas as the platonic ideal of the "stranger rapist" — he writes that his crimes "gripped the region with the kind of fear that comes from an unknown man, lurking in the darkness, attacking strangers who were doing such everyday tasks as walking home from work, waiting for a bus, moving out of an apartment or even sleeping in their own bed." — but Thomas's story is more than a safety PSA. He was also a husband, a "doting father figure" and a "fun-loving companion" ... who would sneak out at night to rape strangers when he wasn't having a good day.
"They were objects," Thomas told the paper. "Whoever came down the street, an object. . . . It's awful. It's scary. . . . I don't know why I couldn't just stop."
Thomas went through a lot of shit growing up. He was beaten by his high-ranking D.C. cop dad, who was embarrassed by his delinquent son, who tortured animals and pulled incredibly troubling pranks (like slipping his brother sleeping pills "find out what would happen") and clearly had something wrong with him from the get go. Thomas spent three years of high school at a treatment center, where he slipped through the cracks; the executive director said he didn't remember Thomas but that three years there would have been "an exceptionally long period of time" and no one can remember Thomas' diagnosis. Later in life, his dad committed suicide.
He was once shot in the butt before he was supposed to testify against a robbery suspect in D.C. — an incident which he said caused him to lose trust in people — and his first son died the day he was born. But Thomas said the real turning point in his life was being kicked out of his house after high school and eventually ending up homeless, which "created something inside him that he says he couldn't control."
He's not the only one who describes his rapist tendencies like a disease brought on by circumstance; one policeman told the paper that "He knew right from wrong" and that "He admitted it was something he couldn't shake." That explanation seems like quite that cop-out given the numerous rapes he committed over the years, both on the street and in his home. ("If you didn't give it to him, he took it," his ex-girlfriend of ten years said of his "insatiable" sex drive. "He would get mad if I didn't give it to him.")
Thomas told White that "rejection, generally, was a common theme in his attacks; that he would go walking and get his urges at times when he felt down or when things weren't going well in his life." And, in retrospect, his after-dark attacks had creepy similarities to his public life, like in this incident, which took place shortly after he had a child with a later girlfriend:
Police think Thomas entered through an unlocked window. Thomas said that it was dark and that there was a baby in the bedroom.
The victim said she awoke after 1 a.m. to find a man in her bedroom. He threatened to kill her 11-month-old son before placing a pillowcase over her head and raping her. Afterward, he admonished her for leaving her windows unlocked with a baby inside. At the time, Thomas's son was about 18 months old.
"I don't think he's going to stop," the victim told The Post in an interview in 2010, before Thomas was identified as a suspect. "He sees he's getting away with it and that gives him the confidence to keep going. I think there's a sickness and he can't control himself."
Sometime after that attack, Thomas was visiting his mother in Virginia when he issued her a similar warning.
"After his dad died, he would caution me to make sure the windows were locked," Shirley Thomas said. Once, Thomas appeared in an upstairs room after going outside, having climbed up and entered through an unlocked window. "I went upstairs, and he was upstairs. I learned my lesson."
Thomas was finally apprehended soon after he abducted three teenage trick-or-treaters in 2009, raping two of them before one managed to text her mom "Man raping my friend in the woods behind CVS call 911." The case received a ton of publicity for obvious reasons and that's when Thomas got the moniker "East Coast Rapist," complete with composite sketch billboards and other FBI-approved PR efforts. Two years later, they finally got him:
Thomas recounted the moment almost wistfully. It was the first time he could shed his facade and come clean.
"It was a relief," Thomas said, adding that he wanted to be caught, to be stopped. "There was something in my stomach. Something was choking me forever."
Is there any other takeaway here other than depressed disgust? Thomas said his rapes weren't all about power — "I don't hate women, and I don't want to hurt people" — but that it wasn't about sex, either; he could just as well been a serial killer. "I understand I need to be punished," he said. "Now tell me what the hell is wrong with me."
We definitely shouldn't dismiss Thomas as a inhuman monster; not just for his sake (if you think we should even care about "his sake" at all), but for ours. Because Thomas wasn't just an animal jumping out of the bushes to rape strangers. Some of his attacks were random, but his on-paper life was together enough that he wasn't caught for decades. Thomas had long-term romantic partners, children, supportive family. His quotes are frustrating because they imply that he feels helpless, but what if he really does feel helpless? Do we just lock him up and hope there aren't too many more like him out there? Or do we put his story in a larger context, one that includes education reform and the nature vs. nurture debate and a justice system which prioritizes well-off white victims over prostitutes, one of the reasons why Thomas was able to fly under the radar for so long?
When confronted with horror, my tendency is always to attempt to contextualize — that's why I've argued that we should listen to rapists tell their side of the story. But in the case of the East Coast Rapist, I'm left without much of a conclusion.
East Coast Rapist suspect acknowledges attacks in several states [Washington Post]