HAWKINSVILLE -- Lured to the woods and stabbed in the spine with a pocketknife, J’maal Keyes prayed as he bled to death for God to have mercy on -- of all people -- his killer.
That is the story Robert Kane Rolison told of Keyes’ April 2013 fatal knifing and disappearance from Middle Georgia State College, where Keyes, 19, was a freshman.
Rolison’s account emerged in his handwritten, one-page confession Monday as he pleaded guilty to murder in Pulaski County Superior Court.
He blamed the attack, in part, on the influence of drugs, including LSD, and was under the impression that people were computers who were controlled by others, prosecutors said.
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In exchange for his murder plea, Rolison, who turned 19 in September, was sentenced to life in prison. He could be eligible for parole in 30 years.
Rolison was 17 when the slaying happened and would likely have faced a death-penalty prosecution had he been older. Capital punishment for killers who murder before age 18 was abolished a decade ago.
In spring 2013, Keyes’ vanishing rattled the small-town campus of Middle Georgia State in Cochran. For days, until investigators zeroed in on Rolison after talking to his friends and family, some in the close-knit Bleckley County community feared there was a killer in their midst.
Details of Keyes’ murder have largely remained a mystery in the year and a half since.
The GBI and prosecutors nonetheless built a substantial case against Rolison. They didn’t hear Rolison’s version of events until late last month when he decided to plead guilty.
According to Rolison, he and Keyes were acquaintances. Rolison was a Hawkinsville High School student jointly enrolled at Middle Georgia State when he met Keyes there, at a gazebo designated for smoking.
Rolison has said he and Keyes once smoked marijuana together.
“They were not bosom friends,” Oconee Circuit District Attorney Tim Vaughn said. “(Rolison) said he woke up one morning and decided he was gonna kill somebody.”
‘WE CRIED AND HE DIED’
On April 25, 2013, the day Keyes was slain, Rolison tricked Keyes into riding with him to Rolison’s house on the northern outskirts of Hawkinsville.
Rolison told Keyes he grew marijuana in the woods near the house and wanted to show it to Keyes, who was from Paulding County west of Atlanta.
While the two students were in the woods, Rolison pulled a 4-inch pocketknife and jammed it in Keyes’ back, then stabbed him a dozen or more times.
“We started fighting and I kept stabbing him in the armpit and chest,” Rolison wrote in his confession. “He became weak and wasn’t able to move real well and I started to realize what I did.”
Keyes, mortally wounded, then asked Rolison for something to drink.
“I went to my car ... changed clothes ... went into my house and got him a Dr. Pepper and went back and gave it to him,” Rolison wrote.
“We started talking and he prayed to God to forgive him for his sins and to forgive me for doing this because I was confused and lost in life.”
Rolison added: “We cried and he died shortly after.”
Rolison said he poured gasoline on Keyes’ body, built a fire to burn it and in the process set about 30 acres of Pulaski County forest ablaze.
He later dismembered what was left of the body and buried it.
Four or five days after that, Rolison said he dug up the remains.
In his confession, he wrote that it “took 2 trips to get all the pieces to the river. The only thing that was not disposed of was his right leg that went missing in the woods when I was getting rid of the evidence.”
At some point, authorities have said, Rolison went to watch a friend’s sister play softball. On the way, as he crossed a bridge on Hawkinsville’s east side, he tossed the knife in the Ocmulgee River.
‘SORRY FOR ALL THE PAIN’
By road, the Cochran campus is roughly 15 miles east of the spot below Buck Creek Road in neighboring Pulaski County where Keyes was killed.
The murder scene, a few minutes northwest of downtown Hawkinsville, is secluded amid timber tracts and pastureland west of Ga. 247, about 20 miles south of Robins Air Force Base.
Rolison lived on adjoining property along Cabero Road with his mother and maternal grandparents.
In court Monday morning, about a dozen of his family members sat in the first two rows behind him. Rolison, in leg irons, glanced their way as he strode in wearing a dark suit.
Outside, blowing rain slapped on the windows, at times drowning out the half-hour proceeding.
Keyes’ relatives and supporters, some two dozen of them, sat across the aisle from Rolison’s people. Many wore green, Keyes’ favorite color, in his honor.
Judge Frederick Mullis likened the case to “a Shakespearean tragedy.”
Rolison’s attorney, Jeff Grube, spoke of “this tragic, tragic situation” and its “senseless nature.”
Grube said his client “had a bright future ahead of him. ... J’maal Keyes had a bright future, too. There’s nothing we can do ... to bring back this young man.”
Keyes’ mother, Veronica Keyes, sobbed when she addressed the court. She mentioned Rolison’s sentence.
“Thirty years and maybe parole,” she said. “We won’t get that.”
She asked God for strength.
“This is just the beginning of having to live every day without J’maal,” she said.
Before his sentence was handed down, the broad-shouldered Rolison spoke.
“I just wanted to say to everybody that I can’t take back my actions, and I’m sorry for everything I did for taking the life of a person who was better than I’ll ever be able to be, and better than anybody that I’ve ever known,” he said.
“And I’m sorry for all the pain and suffering that I caused. ... Just know that I feel that every day too.”
‘WHAT HAPPENED TO MY BABY?’
In recent days, Rolison led authorities to a place along the Ocmulgee where he said he discarded bits of Keyes’ body.
Investigators, in their fruitless search for Keyes’ remains in spring 2013, had come within about 200 yards of the spot.
Vaughn, the district attorney, said the plea was agreed to, in part, to get more information about the specifics of the crime and, perhaps, to help find some of Keyes’ remains for a proper burial.
Over the weekend, Rolison’s family declined a reporter’s interview request.
Rolison’s father, Bill, “is struggling with it, how his child could do something like that. As I would, too,” Vaughn said.
Until Monday, Keyes’ family didn’t know the disturbing circumstances of his death.
“It would be nice if I got the absolute truth. ... I wonder what J’maal’s last hour was like,” Veronica Keyes, 48, told The Telegraph last week.
“Did he cry? Did he call out? Did he see it coming? ... That’s something a mother needs to know. ... What happened to my baby?”
Thoughts of the horrible unknown ran through her mind daily.
“There are days where all I do is cry,” she said. “Sometimes I wish it was just a dream, that I’ll wake up and it’ll all be over.”
Asked if her son would forgive Rolison, she said, “I think he would. And that’s what he would want me to do.”
All she hoped was that Rolison would be sent to prison for life.
Aside from that, Veronica Keyes said, “I don’t think about the guy. I don’t allow myself to stare at him. I don’t want his face to be etched in my mind. ... I just want to remember J’maal.”
‘A CARING YOUNG MAN’
J’maal Malik Keyes was a New York City native, from the Bronx.
He moved with his family to the Atlanta area about a decade ago when he was a sixth-grader.
The youngest of three children, he dreamed of being a police detective.
But that wasn’t his first choice.
In high school he was in Junior ROTC. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, join the Army, then be in the military police.
In May 2012, upon graduating Hiram High, he went to enlist but was overweight.
He joined a gym, but the pounds wouldn’t come off fast enough.
College, he figured, might offer another path into law enforcement.
His favorite TV show was “The First 48,” a documentary series about cracking murder cases. He wanted to do that.
“He liked figuring things out,” his mother said. “And helping people. ... He was a caring young man.”
He was always hugging his mom. Five or six times a day, he’d kiss her on the cheek.
Friday nights he almost always put in for dinner at Zaxby’s. When his mother said they should eat in, he would wrap his arm around her, give her a smooch and flash a grin she will never forget.
“He would just break me down,” she said, “with this big old smile.”
When they moved closer to Atlanta, to Austell, in the summer of 2013, a neighbor’s aunt needed help getting down their apartment stairs in her wheelchair. J’maal lent a hand.
When he spotted a kid at his high school sitting alone at lunch one day, J’maal sat down beside him.
The kid, a boy named Paul, lived right across the street from the school, easy walking distance. Still, every day when J’maal’s mother came to pick up J’maal, J’maal insisted they give the kid a ride to his house.
“I’d say, ‘But he lives right there,’” Veronica Keyes recalled. “But J’maal would say, ‘Mom, he needs me.’ ... So when I hear he befriended this guy (at college), it doesn’t surprise me.”
J’maal and his mother visited Middle Georgia State when he was scoping out colleges. He liked it there, the small-town feel.
He enrolled and planned to major in criminal justice. After that he’d maybe try the Army again or become a cop.
Then came late April 2013.
Five days after his mother’s 47th birthday party, the last time J’maal saw her, he vanished.
“How did this happen?” Veronica Keyes thought. “I made sure he wasn’t a street person and didn’t get into crime. I was careful. I made sure I knew what was going on in his life.”
His father, Michael Keyes, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has been in a nursing home since 2006.
J’maal’s dad was the one who named him.
His first name, J’maal, and his middle name, Malik, translate to “handsome king” in Arabic.
“He was my beautiful king -- beautiful inside and out,” Veronica Keyes said. “I miss him so much.”
Telegraph writer Amy Leigh Womack contributed to this report. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.