NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — It was definitely the same man raping women and girls along the East Coast, the attacks spanning from Connecticut to Virginia and growing more horrific as year after year passed. Investigators just didn’t know who it was.

He eluded authorities as he committed high-risk outdoor rapes armed with a gun or knife, fleeing by foot or bicycle, stoking fear in one community after another. Then, last week, with a hunch, a tip and a discarded cigarette smeared with DNA, police Lt. Julie Johnson in Connecticut told Detective Liam Burke in Virginia: “It’s him. He’s the East Coast Rapist.”

Burke’s answer was as simple as it was appropriate: “Oh, my God.”

Aaron Thomas, 39, was arrested last week and appeared in court Monday after an apparent jailhouse suicide attempt the weekend between. The investigation and arrest offer rare insight into a case unusual for its geographic size, its 14-year timeline, its sudden progression and the level of cooperation it produced among investigators in several states.

Thomas has been charged with one rape in Connecticut and two in Virginia. Investigators say there are 12 attacks with 17 victims, including 14 sexual assaults, two abductions where victims escaped or were not assaulted, and one peeping offense. The attacker often wore a mask and did his work at night or during the evening.

The East Coast attacks started in 1997 in Forestville, Md., with a rapist pulling a gun on a woman and forcing her into the woods, then fleeing on a 10-speed bicycle. Seven months later, a woman was raped behind a restaurant garbage bin in Maryland; the following year a 16-year-old girl was raped, also in Maryland. Then the rapist began attacking women in Virginia before returning to Maryland in 2001, when for the first time he raped two victims in the same attack.

Then for five years, there was no sign of him.

He resurfaced in 2006 in New England, peeping on a girl doing her homework in Rhode Island before her screams scared him off. A year later, someone broke into an apartment and raped the Connecticut woman in front of her baby. Two teenage trick-or-treaters were raped in 2009 in Woodbridge, Va.

DNA connected the attacks, and investigators began to develop theories, spending years eliminating hundreds of potential suspects.

With the crimes all occurring near Interstate 95, they began to wonder if the attacker was a truck driver. He probably was someone familiar with the areas, so he could escape. And he probably had some contact with police, though he didn’t have a criminal record serious enough for his DNA to be in a national database.

They turned to a relatively new, highly detailed police database that includes everything from traffic tickets to arrests, all indexed by time and location. They played around with the search parameters, adjusting the height and weight of the hypothetical suspect.

Investigators eliminated hundreds of suspects who had alibis for attacks in Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland, and for the peeping tom in Rhode Island. They met regularly, even visiting the crime scenes to canvass neighbors. They set up a website seeking tips and put up electronic billboards with sketches of the suspect.

And on Feb. 28 came a startling tip from Maryland: a caller saying Thomas had taken credit for the first attack in 1997, describing how he was on a bicycle.

They noticed Thomas had ties to all the crime areas. He also had been charged with assault and was stopped for loitering near one of the crime scenes shortly before the attack, according to a law enforcement person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is continuing.

And Thomas was an unemployed truck driver.

“This one was very promising from the get,” said New Haven Detective Kristine Cuddy.

Within days, investigators were following Thomas, who was in court in New Haven on a charge of stealing a bicycle. When he discarded a cigarette, investigators picked it up and sent it to a lab. Bingo.

“I was overwhelmed,” said Johnson, the New Haven lieutenant, calling the investigation exhausting. “We were ecstatic.”

Police arrested Thomas on March 4, just four days after the tip came in, as he walked near his New Haven home, where he lived with his girlfriend and 5-year-old son. Neighbors described him as an odd nuisance who would park a tractor-trailer in the residential neighborhood and once punched a neighbor in the face.

Thomas made incriminating statements about numerous rapes and said he had “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality regarding women, prosecutor David Strollo said in court Monday. Thomas also told investigators, “Why haven’t you picked me up sooner?” and “What took you so long to get me?” Strollo said.

Joe Lopez, Thomas’ public defender, said in court papers that authorities “will undoubtedly try to connect this defendant to multiple unsolved sexual assaults complaints in multiple jurisdictions.”

Lopez declined to comment to The Associated Press this week.

Investigators in Connecticut and other states say they are carefully looking at Thomas’ travels to see whether other rapes were committed.

“Rape is a vastly unreported crime,” Johnson said. “I would only gather that there may possibly be other sexual assaults that he committed over his lifetime that were either unreported or were not linked by DNA.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)