MADISON, WIS. — Police are investigating whether the lawyer accused in a series of Boston rapes from over 15 years ago could also have sexually assaulted women in his college town, but challenges collecting and testing evidence could make it difficult to link him to crimes that are nearly two decades old.
Matthew Nilo, accused of sexually assaulting eight women in the North End and Charlestown between 2007 and 2008, graduated with his bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2010. The timeline of each assault coincides with periods when Nilo would have been home for summer or winter break: one of the rapes took place on Thanksgiving Day; another attack, two days before Christmas.
“At this time, we are aware of Nilo’s arrest,” said Stephanie Fryer, public information officer for the Madison Police Department. “Our team of detectives are still working to determine if he is a suspect in any of our cases.”
Joseph Cataldo, Nilo’s attorney, maintained his client’s innocence and said he does not expect police will find anything in their search.
Madison police have been investigating potential connections between Nilo and unsolved sexual assault cases for roughly three months, but Fryer declined to say when police expect their investigation to conclude. Boston police first reached out to the FBI for assistance in October 2022, and were able to identify Nilo as a suspect in April.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said his office previously assisted a Massachusetts law enforcement agency with a documents request regarding Nilo, and is prepared to investigate if there are grounds for further charges in Madison, though he is “ethically bound not to speak about open investigations and/or possible prosecutions.”
A spokesperson for the Suffolk district attorney, whose office is prosecuting Nilo, confirmed that local law enforcement are not investigating Nilo for any additional assaults in Boston at this time.
Marc Lovicott, communications director for the UW-Madison Police Department, told the Globe on Tuesday that university police already reviewed unsolved sexual assaults “when we became aware of Mr. Nilo’s arrest and his connection to our campus,” and “have not found any connections” to unsolved crimes from that period.
In Boston, police were able to arrest Nilo by taking DNA from sexual assault evidence collection kits that previously yielded no matches, and retesting the kits against commercial genealogy databases, such as FamilyTree DNA. To identify Nilo as a suspect, police sought help from the FBI through the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, a federal program designed to process collection kits and reduce a backlog that plagues crime labs nationwide, including in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice, whose crime lab analyzes sexual assault kits for law enforcement statewide, has received grants through the Kit Initiative since 2015, including, most recently, $1.5 million in fiscal year 2022 to support the state’s Cold Case Team in their investigation of unsolved sexual assaults.
An analyst from the Wisconsin State Crime Lab in Madison said that while evidence from sexual assault and violent crimes typically gets priority, processing evidence from cold cases often takes much longer; the testing of new technology on samples as well as the time elapsed since the crime can mean months or years go by before progress is made on a cold case.
Prior to gaining access to commercial databases, investigators relied almost entirely on CODIS, a federal database containing DNA profiles of people who have previously been arrested. This meant a suspect’s DNA had to be in the system for police to genetically match them to unsolved crimes.
Since Nilo has been arrested and charged in Boston, his DNA is available in CODIS for other law enforcement agencies investigating whether he is a match to any of their unsolved crimes.
However, Ozanne, whose jurisdiction includes Madison, told the Globe that “there are restrictions on what samples can be put into the national CODIS/NDIS databases” that help police match DNA, which could make it challenging to identify a potential match.
Ozanne said investigators at his office “have not received any referral reference” for Nilo from Madison police, and Nilo’s name is not already in their system.
In addition to obstacles in the testing process, there is also the broader question of whether any additional victims at that time would have come forward, particularly if potential crimes occurred on campus.
“Sexual assault is so underreported for so many reasons. Oftentimes, people fear coming forward because of what they think will happen if they do,” said Casey Corcoran, a training director at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
Speaking out about sexual violence on college campuses became more widespread in the early 2010s, Corcoran said, sparked in part by former Amherst College student Angie Epifano, who published an article in the school newspaper in 2011 about the trauma she suffered when she was sexually assaulted by another student, and how the school failed to take appropriate action.
Even today, Corcoran said, there is no guarantee survivors will come forward, though the resources provided by university staff and law enforcement have somewhat improved. However, 20 years ago, there would have been even greater reluctance to report a rape or sexual assault to campus or local police because of the longstanding stigma.
“We have a cultural tendency not to believe people,” he said. “Part of the taboo when talking about sexual violence is people get uncomfortable when they hear the word sex, but what this is really about is violence.”