To join the Dark Brotherhood, you had to embark on a quest and make a kill.
The Brotherhood’s make-believe band of assassins maraud in a popular video game called “Skyrim.”
By all appearances in early 2013, the line between fantasy and reality blurred for Kane Rolison.
He was hallucinating and at times thought he was demon-possessed.
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He was into gaming, costumed duels, drugs. Some would describe him as bright, intelligent, a boy who was going places. He was on the golf team at Hawkinsville High. But those close to him sensed something was wrong.
“Kane’s been kind of spacey,” his stepmother would later tell authorities. “Kane is a sick kid. I mean, he needs some mental help.”
In spring 2013, Rolison, then 17, was also enrolled at Middle Georgia State College in neighboring Cochran when a student went missing. Within days, Rolison was the prime suspect.
Last month, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison for luring the student to his car, stabbing him to death, burning his body and tossing the remains in the Ocmulgee River.
A prosecutor has since said the killing may have been a delusional act of “human sacrifice.”
But because of a lack of physical evidence, how or why 19-year-old J’maal Keyes was killed will probably remain a mystery.
All anyone has is Rolison’s word.
His one-page confession of how the murder went down and his November plea closed the case.
A fuller and perhaps more disturbing picture, however, emerges in investigative documents and recorded interviews, which detail how a troubled teen was brought to justice.
Many of Rolison’s friends told authorities that he had talked about killing someone, but they dismissed the notion thinking it was a joke or figured he was talking about a killing in his virtual video game world.
One friend, who was 18 at the time and participated with Rolison in live-action role-playing events -- acting out scenes from video games -- exchanged text messages with him on April 25, 2013.
It was the last day Keyes was seen alive.
All the texts from that conversation were deleted by the time Rolison was arrested two weeks later, but they were recovered when the GBI searched his iPhone.
When interviewed by agents, Rolison’s friend said he realized later that Rolison had been referring to Keyes’ murder in the texts, but the friend denied involvement in the killing.
At 2:30 p.m., a few hours after Keyes vanished, the friend texted Rolison: “I’ll know when it happens.”
Rolison replied: “Today actually.”
* * *
Rolison sat down in front of a brick wall painted white.
He was in a room at Middle Georgia State College’s Cochran campus, in a chair facing two campus police officers and a video camera.
Rolison, an eyebrow stud over his right eye, wore a green, plaid shirt. He had listened to his Miranda rights and signed a form waiving them.
It was noon on May 1, 2013.
Keyes had been dead for almost a week, but only Rolison knew.
Perhaps certain that he had covered his tracks and there was no evidence tying him to a crime, Rolison may have been doing what the guilty sometimes do when confronted. He agreed to talk, to appear helpful and deflect suspicion.
Rolison, though, had already slipped up.
Earlier, he had denied being with Keyes the day he disappeared. Rolison had since been shown security camera footage from a college parking lot. Keyes could be seen getting into Rolison’s black 2003 Chevy Monte Carlo about 11 o’clock the morning of April 25.
Rolison changed his story. He said he hadn’t known the guy was Keyes. Rolison said he just wanted Keyes to purchase cigarettes for him because Rolison was underage and couldn’t buy them, and that’s where they were going.
According to Rolison’s new story, on the way to the Flash Foods in downtown Cochran, Keyes asked that they make a detour because Keyes wanted to buy some marijuana. Rolison said he didn’t want any part of that.
Rolison said, sure, he sometimes smoked pot, but his mom had been “getting on my ass” about that kind of thing. So Rolison said he dropped Keyes off on a side street at the western edge of town.
The supposed spot, on Jessup Street, was just off Ga. 26, the highway to Hawkinsville, an Ocmulgee River town about 10 miles to the southwest, where Rolison lived with his mother and her folks.
Rolison said that as he drove away, back toward the Sunoco gas mart at the corner by the highway, he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw Keyes just standing there.
Show us where, the police would say.
Rolison later led them there, and in doing so trapped himself in a lie.
Campus police would watch hours of footage from a security camera at that Sunoco. One angle provided a view of Jessup Street, the street the gas mart faces. On the day Rolison said he let Keyes out, Rolison’s car never cruised by.
Rolison and Keyes no doubt traveled Ga. 26 the day Keyes was likely murdered. But instead of turning there at the store as Rolison claimed, they rode to the northern outskirts of Hawkinsville, to a forest tract next to Rolison’s house where the fatal knifing happened. At least according to Rolison’s confession last month.
Rolison claims he lured Keyes into his car by asking him to ride to the Flash Foods to buy him cigarettes. On the way he asked Keyes to ride with him to Hawkinsville to see some marijuana plants in the woods behind his house.
“He agreed. ... We went into the woods, down a trail to where the plants were,” Rolison wrote in his November confession.
“When he turned around I pulled out a knife and started stabbing him in the back. We started fighting and I kept stabbing him in the armpit and chest. He became weak and wasn’t able to move real well and I started to realize what I did. ... 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. We cried and he died.”
Rolison wrote that he poured gasoline on Keyes’ body, then burned, dismembered and buried it.
“The next Monday,” he wrote, “I dug him up and dumped his body in the river. It took two trips to get all the pieces.”
When campus police questioned him May 1, 2013, none of that was known.
Rolison kept feeding cops the tale of only wanting Keyes to buy cigarettes, claiming he hadn’t realized that Keyes, days later, was the missing student whose face was all over the local news.
Rolison denied having anything to do with Keyes’ disappearance. He was adamant that the only reason he hadn’t come clean about Keyes being in his car in the first place was that he didn’t want Keyes, or rather the guy who turned out to be Keyes, getting in trouble for buying weed.
Campus police Lt. Shane Roland asked Rolison where exactly on Jessup Street he put Keyes out.
Rolison wasn’t specific.
Another campus cop, Capt. Charles Warren, walked in.
“OK, Kane. The man is missing,” Warren said. “The last time he was seen was getting in a car with you and leaving this campus. Nobody’s seen him since. No phone calls, nothing. Do you see why I think you might be lying?”
The questions -- the wheres, the whens -- kept coming as the officers locked Rolison into his story.
Rolison’s lips looked chapped, his mouth dry. When his voice wavered, officer Leon Reid told him to take a deep breath.
Rolison inhaled through his nose, shut his eyes.
“I know it’s a lot we’re coming at you with,” Reid said. “I know you’re nervous, I know you’re 17. ... I know you’ve got a lot going through your mind right now.”
Rolison said, “I just want everything to be OK.”
So do we, the officers replied.
Rolison said he’d only spoken to Keyes a couple of times while hanging out at the smoking-area gazebo near the campus library.
Reid said, “It’s kind of bold to take somebody to get some weed, man, if you barely know him.”
When it came time to commit his story to paper, to write it down in a witness statement, Rolison asked, “Do I have to mention everything about marijuana and stuff? ... Because I am applying to West Point college to pursue a military career, and I don’t know if that would ...”
“It would be in your best interest,” Roland, the lieutenant, said, “to mention everything.”
He told Rolison they’d bring in more paper if he needed it.
Rolison started writing but stopped.
He sat for almost a minute, then asked, “What was the name? ... His name?”
“J’maal Keyes,” officer Reid said.
* * *
J’maal Malik Keyes was originally from New York City, the Bronx.
His family moved to metro Atlanta’s west side when he was a sixth-grader.
He hoped to become a cop, maybe join the Army.
At college, he cut hair to earn extra money.
As the end of his freshman year approached in spring 2013, he planned to get a summer job back home in Austell. A former girlfriend said he looked forward to taking care of his mom.
Keyes’ father, who has multiple sclerosis, was in a nursing home.
Of her son, Keyes’ mother said recently, “He was a caring young man. ... I miss him so much.”
On April 29, after no one had heard from Keyes for four days, his family reported him missing.
He was last seen on campus April 25.
His cellphone was last used at 12:03 p.m. that day.
* * *
Eight hours later, Rolison met up with his best friend near downtown Hawkinsville, where the friend lived.
The friend, an 18-year-old guy, later told GBI agents that Rolison’s eyes were bloodshot and that he appeared to be high on drugs.
Rolison was laughing, saying he’d killed someone and that “it was not an easy kill.”
Rolison, the friend said, had believed you could leave your body as a demon.
The friend said he had spoken to another buddy who said he’d told Rolison that “in order to become a god that you had to find your inner being.”
The friend said Rolison told of picking up “a big, tall black guy,” taking him to the woods and cutting him with a switchblade 12 to 18 times. The friend saw the knife in Rolison’s car, but he didn’t believe Rolison had killed anyone.
“He told me right after he stabbed him that (the stabbed guy) was begging, pleading to let him go,” the friend told agents, “and that he would not tell on him. And Kane said that he put him on fire and watched him burn.”
A gamer later told the GBI that in the “Skyrim” video game, a player gets extra points if a character is burned alive.
About an hour after talking to Rolison, the friend got another call from Rolison asking him to help “clean up the mess and put out” a fire.
A timber tract adjacent to Rolison’s house caught fire soon after Keyes disappeared. The land is near Buck Creek Road amid the farmland a few miles north of downtown Hawkinsville, about 20 miles south of Robins Air Force Base.
Rolison’s friend denied going to help extinguish the flames that scorched several acres.
Another friend did go.
He told GBI agents the blaze looked like a controlled burn, like someone had set all the pine straw on fire.
He said Rolison was “flipping out” and trying to extinguish the flames with a broken shovel. He and his mom were arguing.
He gave Rolison some yellow pills -- painkillers -- to calm him.
Thinking the blaze would burn itself out, the friend left after a few minutes.
“I didn’t see nothing that looked like no body out there in the woods,” he told the agents. “I swear.”
* * *
In the weeks before Rolison’s guilty plea, a psychologist examined him, declaring him competent to stand trial.
But he was diagnosed with delusional disorder and multiple drug-use disorders. The delusional disorder was in remission.
He admitted that he started using marijuana and huffing gas when he was 12. He stopped huffing in middle school, but started using Adderall, crushing and snorting the pills when he was 13. He used Adderall almost daily up until his arrest.
Rolison told the psychologist he started drinking alcohol and using synthetic marijuana at age 14. He started cocaine, MDMA, LSD, Zanax, and roxicodone at 16. He also started huffing compressed air.
Rolison began having auditory and visual hallucinations. The experiences ranged from seeing numbers appear on a wall to believing a demon was trying to control his body. He also had visions that he was telekinetic and had received special messages from a TV.
Middle Georgia State College Police Chief Shawn Douglas said recently that Rolison, upon fessing up, alluded to video games, drug abuse and possibly seeking “a higher energy” by killing.
Rolison said his longest stint of sobriety had lasted about a year and a half. He admitted selling drugs.
Although he was still in high school, Rolison was taking only college classes. His grades ranged from A’s to F’s.
When the psychologist asked what he did during a typical day, Rolison replied, “Drugs and party.”
* * *
On May 2, a week after Keyes went missing, GBI agent Lindsey Giddens interviewed Rolison. An audio recorder was running.
She wanted Rolison to go over his story again.
Rolison said on the morning of April 25 he went to the Cochran campus and the smoking gazebo, not far from where he parked. Keyes walked up.
“I didn’t even know his name,” Rolison said.
He shared with Giddens pretty much the same scenario he’d laid out for the campus police.
“Seems you were the last person to see him,” Giddens said.
“I’m telling you the 100 percent truth,” Rolison said, “and I want him to be found and OK just as much as anybody else. I’m working with y’all. Trust me, if I had anything to hide I wouldn’t even be here right now.”
“Well,” Giddens said, “you’d be surprised.”
“I really don’t like the direction that this is going,” Rolison said.
Then, referring to a polygraph, he said, “Y’all can hook me up to the machine, whatever it’s called.”
Rolison mentioned how he hoped to do six years in the Army, get a degree in computer science, maybe write programs for a living.
Giddens told him that sounded like a good plan.
“Would you be willing to take a polygraph exam?” she asked.
“I mean, yeah, but I’d prefer not to do it today,” Rolison said.
“Tomorrow maybe?” Giddens said.
Rolison sighed and, almost under his breath, whispered, “Y’all are really killing me.”
Giddens, inquisitive yet reassuring, said, “Well, we gotta find out.”
All Rolison could do was profess his innocence.
“I’m a 17-year-old boy with a bright future,” he said. “What reason would I have to lie to you?”
* * *
The secret of who murdered J’maal Keyes did not die easy.
May 9, the day Rolison was jailed, began with him a free man.
That morning, he took a polygraph exam at the Georgia State Patrol post in Dublin.
The results were inconclusive, but the exam did not go well.
At one point, Rolison got mad and refused to answer more questions.
That afternoon about 3:30 he was driving in Hawkinsville when police stopped him and seized his car. They had a search warrant. Though they would not find anything to pin Keyes’ disappearance or death on Rolison, they were about to take a hard look.
That set Rolison off. The net was closing. He seemed to sense it.
His mother picked him up and gave him a ride home.
She had never seen him so distraught.
He looked, she later recalled, “white as ... toilet paper.”
Within 10 minutes or so, mother and son were back at their house north of town.
Rolison never made it inside.
Deanna Rolison would tell investigators -- describing a scene wracked with tears and screams -- that after she and her son pulled into their driveway, “all hell broke loose.”
Kane dropped to his knees.
“Mama,” he said, “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?” Deanna said.
“I think I may have hurt that boy,” Kane said. “I think I’m in trouble and I need your help.”
He wrapped his arms around her and wouldn’t let go. He threatened to kill himself.
“What do you mean you hurt him?” Deanna said. “Hurt him with what?”
Besides saying “I don’t know,” Kane didn’t answer.
“I think I may be sick,” he said.
You have to turn yourself in, Deanna said. “You can’t run from this. You’re gonna have to face this.”
Kane was out of his head, shaking, “a doe in the headlights,” Deanna recalled.
Before long, a family member dialed 911. Cops were on the way.
Deanna kept asking Kane, “Why did this happen? ... Why would you do this? You’ve got a great future. You skipped 11th and 12th grade. You’re in college early. You got a application at West Point. You got Vanderbilt looking at you ... What in the world?”
“I don’t know,” Kane said.
When the officers arrived to take him into custody, Kane, dressed in a baby-blue polo shirt and cream khakis, was on the back porch.
His hair was mussed. He’d been crying.
Pulaski County sheriff’s deputies escorted him toward a patrol car. His hands were cuffed behind his back.
A deputy with a video camera captured the scene.
A few steps from the squad car that would carry him to jail, Kane said something to the cops. He didn’t say it loud. Had a camera not been rolling, his words might have gone unnoticed.
But what he said before he ducked into the caged back seat of the patrol car made him sound every bit a lost boy, perhaps bracing for punishment in a realm of bad men.
“I appreciate y’all doing this,” Kane said. “This is what needed to happen.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.