Friday, after Aaron Thomas received two life sentences for raping her 12 years ago, making her one of the many victims of the man dubbed the East Coast Rapist, Tracie Saunders decided to do something to show she was free of him forever. She did something rape victims rarely do. Saunders revealed her identity to show that Thomas no longer had a hold on her life.
"I'm elated," said Saunders outside the Loudoun County Courthouse. "I was glad I could be there and look at him and know I'm stronger than he is."
Saunders admitted it wasn't always that way.
Thomas attacked her in May 2001 as she was moving out of her Leesburg apartment. He threatened to kill the mother of three.
"He had tied my hands. I was on the floor," Saunders said. "My thoughts were, Am I ever going to see my babies again? That was very, very hard and that was the most traumatic part of the whole thing."
Saunders said that after the rape she was a changed person. Once in the Army, she prided herself on being in tip-top shape. But she became fearful of going to the gym or running outside and she avoided men.
Saunders said it took a year before she started to regain control of her life. Still, the crime lurked in her mind, and the memories came flooding back on Halloween night in 2009, when three Prince William County teens were attacked, two of them raped.
When Thomas was finally identified and arrested in March 2011, he was linked to both the Loudoun and Prince William county crimes. Investigators think he is responsible for more than a dozen attacks in states along the East Coast. Earlier this month Thomas was sentenced to three life terms for attacking the teens.
Now with her case concluded, the 53-year-old Saunders plans to turn to her attention to helping crime victims.
"She's a hero, a modern-day hero," said Loudoun County Commonwealth's Attorney James Plowman. "She stands up for victims. She's going to be a great advocate."
Saunders said she's looking forward to the next phase of her life. She's getting married soon, and so is her oldest son.
"Everything is going to be better,” she said. “I don't think he'll (Thomas) occupy my mind when I go to sleep at night. I'm not going to give him a second thought. I'm going to try to help others."