Familial hope: After East Coast Rapist arrest, Harringtons push for DNA
"Why haven't you picked me up sooner?"
That was the question that 39-year-old unemployed truck driver Aaron H. Thomas allegedly asked investigators upon his Friday, March 4 arrest in New Haven, Connecticut. Believed to be the so-called East Coast Rapist, Thomas is not suspected in the Charlottesville killing of Morgan Harrington but is linked by DNA to at least 17 attacks from Rhode Island to Virginia over a dozen years.
One Virginia prosecutor says the arrest would have come sooner if investigators had access to a controversial tool for which Morgan Harrington's parents have been pushing: familial DNA searching.
"If it had been available, this case would have been solved in '07," says Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, adding that several females, including the three teenage girls Thomas allegedly abducted and raped in 2009 in Prince William, might have been spared.
Connecticut does not have the familial DNA searching software which might have pointed to a relative of Thomas incarcerated for a felony in Connecticut, where several of the rapes occurred.
While Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller says "no evidence" links Thomas to the 2009 killing of Morgan Harrington or to a DNA-connected 2005 Fairfax rape, Harrington's parents hope the search for their daughter's killer gets a dose of familial DNA, which enables investigators to narrow the search by looking for looser DNA matches than the exact matches required by traditional testing.
"We're hopeful they'll get it up and running and use it in Morgan's case and other unsolved homicides," says grieving mother Gil Harrington. She expresses frustration that while Virginia has obtained the necessary software to conduct the searches, investigators tell her it could take as long as a year to establish proper protocols.
"I don't understand why it's taking so long," says Harrington, scoffing at privacy concerns voiced by the ACLU.
"This is just something to point you in a direction of people to question," says Harrington, adding that DNA is only collected from felons or those who've been arrested for a violent crime.
"We are working as expeditiously as we can," says Pete Marone, of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, declining to offer a firm timetable.
As reported in the Hook's January 27 cover story, "Familial Pain: Harringtons press police for controversial DNA test," it was familial DNA that enabled California investigators last summer to catch a serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper who committed a string of murders over 25 years. After his arrest in July, 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr. pleaded guilty to 10 murder charges after he was linked to a man convicted on a felony weapons charge: his son.
Prosecutor Ebert says he hopes the Grim Sleeper arrest and the knowledge that a faster arrest in the East Coast Rapist case could have prevented several rapes will help expedite implementation.
"That," says Ebert, "would be one good thing that could come of this."