Almost 12 years ago a Leesburg woman's life was forever changed after Aaron Thomas, now known as the "East Coast rapist," assaulted her in her apartment.
On Friday morning, the woman faced her attacker in court, telling him how that day in 2001 affected every aspect of her life and the lives of her family.
An hour later, the woman got the closure she said she needed.
Thomas, 41, of New Haven, Conn., was sentenced to two life sentences on the charges of rape and abduction with intent to defile.
"What you did to [her] is the same as if you had taken a knife and driven it through her heart. You've driven it right through her soul," Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne told Thomas before handing down the two life sentences.
The victim, who the Times-Mirror is choosing not to name, was raped inside her Plaza Street NE apartment around 7:45 p.m. May 24, 2001, while she was in the process of moving out. When she returned from a bathroom, he shoved her into an unfurnished room. He used a screwdriver to threaten her while he bound her up and then raped her. Thomas wore a black ski mask during the attack, according to court records, and demanded his victim keep her eyes closed at all times.
He fled after the attack with the woman’s clothes and cellphone. He told the woman he lived across the hall and warned her not to call police.
Thomas has been linked by DNA evidence to 13 attacks along the East Coast, including in Fairfax County, Prince William County, Prince George's County, Md., Cranston, R.I., and New Haven, Conn. Six of the attacks were in Virginia.
Thomas in his statement to Horne requested mental health treatment while he is in prison.
"I need help … to find out why I ended up like this … I want to be punished because I need to be punished," he said.
Thomas' victim left the courtroom during his statement to the judge.
A strong testimony
The woman told the court Friday that when Thomas first grabbed her she laughed because she thought it was her husband. Only when she looked down and saw his arms did she realize she was being attacked.
"The only thing I could think is that 'this is what it's like to be raped and that's what happened,'" she said.
During the attack, the woman, a fitness buff and mother of three who served eight years in the U.S. Army, said she tried to kick the floor, hoping her downstairs neighbor would come up to complain about her treadmill. Thomas, she said, held her leg down to prevent her from kicking.
"I just kept asking him [during the attack] where was his mother? Because anyone with a decent mother wouldn't do this," she said, adding that this only made Thomas angrier.
Once Thomas left, the woman said she yelled out a window to her next door neighbors who called for help.
For several years after the attack, the victim said she struggled emotionally and physically. She couldn't run, she said, because she always felt as if someone was chasing her. Employment became impossible, she said, as she worked in the cargo industry and around mostly men. Eventually the woman said she decided she wouldn't let what happened take over her life.
"I decided he hurt my body, but I couldn't allow him to hurt my head, so I became strong because of him," she said as Thomas kept his head hung low in court.
It wasn't until 2009, when police blamed the rape of two of three girls in Prince William County on the East Coast rapist, that the woman said she became fragile again.
"It brought it all back. It's always there. It's just something you tuck away and try not to think about," she said.
Thomas was charged in Prince William County with attacking three teenagers, a 16-year-old and two 17-year-olds, who were trick-or-treating on Halloween 2009.
During the attack, the 16-year-old was able to use her cellphone to text her mother for help. Thomas was sentenced March 8 in Prince William County to three life sentences.
When Thomas was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshal's Office on March 4, 2011, the victim said she was relieved to know that he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone again. Authorities connected Thomas to the rapes from DNA taken off a discarded cigarette butt.
"For the first three years, every night I would call my detective and ask her if she had heard anything? She told me that it was likely, given his lifestyle, that he was dead. So I let him be dead in my head," she said.
Now the woman, who went on camera for a group of television reporters Friday, said she plans to work to help other rape survivors, especially young girls who have suffered from the crime.
Untreated mental illness
Thomas, according to Dr. Mark Hastings of Loudoun County Mental Health, suffered severe emotional and physical trauma throughout his life at the hands of his father. The father, Hastings said, would tell his sons to go to their rooms, strip naked and wait for him to come up and beat them.
Thomas' father eventually killed himself. Thomas found his father dead in his car in the garage of their home with the engine still running.
There were several times during his life, as a child, an adolescent and a teenager, that Thomas' family was told their son needed mental health treatment, Hastings said.
However, the family was "very anti mental health and anti treatment," he said.
Hastings said Thomas wasn't able to comprehend the emotional impact his crimes had on the victims until recently.
"As least half a dozen times … he would ask me 'Why did I do this? Why didn't I get treatment? How can I get help?'" Hastings said.
Thomas' attorney Lori O'Donnell told the court that her client's mother, sister and brother were subpoenaed to testify in court on Friday, but they never showed up.
A request for life
Loudoun County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Plowman on Friday asked Horne to levy the maximum sentence possible against Thomas, taking into account the "horrific" attack on the Leesburg woman and his past criminal history.
"It's a scar that will last some people full lifetimes," Plowman said.
The prosecutor said after the hearing that he was pleased with the outcome.
"I'm happy we could close this chapter for her. I think the sentence was fair given the nature of the crime and his history," he said.
Plowman said there are other cases that Thomas has been linked to through DNA evidence, but has not yet been charged.
He said although the defendant asked for mental health treatment while in prison he will not receive it.
Prisoners, he said, typically can get treatment two years prior to release, but with Thomas already serving five life sentences, he'll never be released.
Plowman called the victim in the Leesburg case "a modern day hero."
"She stands up for other victims," he said.
At the end of the day, the woman told reporters she believed everything would be OK now.
"Ill be able to sleep at night," she said.