During the second week of January 2005, John “The Gambler” Rosholt parked his black 1989 Toyota truck in a Las Vegas casino lot, pocketed the keys and disappeared. The 48-year-old climber and professional poker player left behind a tidy townhouse in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale on December 28, 2004, for a two-week New Year’s holiday. He also left a group of worried friends and a sister who holds plausible hope that he still might be alive. The only substantive hints to his fate are some grainy ATM photos, a credit-card receipt with an unverifiable signature, his missing pack, and the truck, which was discovered last April.
John Nicholas Rosholt III was a climber and gambler. Though he’d done his share of sport routes and bouldering (he consistently won his age division at the Phoenix Bouldering Competition, climbed Hueco V8s and 5.13), it was traditional first ascents and on-sights of 5.12+ trad that set him apart. Rosholt’s crack resume brimmed with stiff ticks like Ruby’s Cafe (5.13a) and Desert Gold (5.13a). Hailed as one of America’s best traditional climbers in the late 1990s, he was known for a methodical, almost scientific approach. Not only could Rosholt calculate the odds on a tough pitch, he could hedge his bets with precise footwork and a sober poker face.
Rosholt was an equally brilliant poker professional. His brand of cards wasn’t the boys’-night-out variety with cigars and take-out pizza. It was the real thing. It was common to see Rosholt in a casino like the Bellagio or Mirage, sitting straight-faced in collared shirt and slacks, at a big-limit game with thousands heaped on the green felt table. Howard Lamb, a retired engineer and sometime professional poker player who knew Rosholt for eight years, says, chuckling, “Poker is the easiest way to earn a hard living. I never played as big as John did.” Darin Holt, a Bay Area computer engineer who was once Rosholt’s roommate, put Rosholt’s cool-headedness into layman’s terms: “John could have walked out of the pages of a Western. He played with the biggest names in poker, like Doyle Brunson.” Brunson helped to revolutionize and popularize poker — a game that’s now been played in one form or another by millions. “Not many people can make a living at the game—John certainly did,” says Holt.
Both trad climbing and professional poker require the assumption of real risk. Both demand a methodical approach, inherent caution and a fine-tuned judgment for when to back off … and when to pull the trigger. Both activities fed Rosholt’s appetite for adventure, whether it was a risky card bluff or a massive runout with a redlining pump. He said that both poker and climbing gave him the same adrenalin rush.
Both games fit Rosholt’s personality—a paradoxical blend of conservative and bold. Unmarried with no children or real job, he was a loner whom many knew of, but few really knew. There is something whimsical about a life of gambling and climbing, yet Rosholt’s games held real and serious consequences for failure. He was a dreamer who made his ideal lifestyle a concrete reality. Understanding his personality and circumstances — not the piecemeal physical evidence—provides the most compelling clues as to what happened to John Rosholt.
His sister says, “Yesterday was John’s birthday.”
Jane Rosholt Watkins of Littleton, Colorado, is Rosholt’s older sister and it was she who reported his disappearance to the police. That was February 12, 2005, seven weeks after Rosholt left Scottsdale. Watkins continues, “I have a feeling John is still alive. That’s why I say it was his birthday, not ‘would have been.’” She glances over a living-room coffee table piled with maps, newspaper clippings, photocopied receipts, and sepia-toned images of John as a kid. Though chatty and energetic, Watkins obviously misses her brother. She looks young for her age, especially when she smiles at a picture of “Johnny” as a long-haired boy with an adolescent frown. Then the worry returns and her brows knit. She adds, “John wasn’t ever close to anyone and we”—she and her sister Jill—“are the only family he has.”
I have visited her twice — the first time to get a feel for Rosholt and the second to test the disappearance theories. Watkins has tirelessly collected information on the case. She’s done the work of a private investigator—visiting both Las Vegas and Scottsdale several times, talking to John’s friends and visiting his last known haunts.
Watkins pulls out a January 4 calendar page. “The lady at the eyeglass store recognized [a picture of] John,” she says. “She was so helpful. She remembered John because he was a mountain climber and needed a pair of prescription sunglasses made up quickly.” This was the last confirmed sighting. The extra expense on a rush job (totaling $297) indicates that a usually frugal Rosholt wanted to be outside, probably hiking, in the immediate future. The glasses and a suitably thrifty haircut at Great Clips on January 7 help rule out the possibility of suicide. People about to kill themselves don’t usually care about recreation or their appearances.
Watkins gives me some background. “Our mother died when John was 23,” she says. “It was rough because she was manic-depressive and drank a lot. Our father died later in a car accident when Jill was in the Canary Islands and John was off climbing. He never got over the fact that he didn’t attend his father’s funeral. He only found out the day after it was over.” John’s father was a nuclear geophysicist who, among other things, helped determine the moon’s age through analyses of lunar dust. John III inherited his analytic bent. Watkins says, “He had a photographic memory in kindergarten. He knew the names of all the presidents and could name them backwards. His education kind of went downhill from there. I think he was bored in school.”
When I first heard of Rosholt’s disappearance, I jumped to the same conclusion that most do, that he must have been robbed and killed by shady gambling types. But that’s cliché and as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s (LVMPD) website states, “Myths still prevail … that all adult missing persons are the victims of kidnapping, murders or some other criminal act … the vast majority of reported missing persons are found or voluntarily return home within 48 to 72 hours.”
When asked about any promising leads in the case, LVMPD Detective Roberto Juarez says, “There are three possibilities—foul play, a medical emergency or an accident. We have no specific direction and are looking at everything.”
Scant hard evidence supports any one of those possibilities. This is what exists: a list of credit- and debit-card transactions from December 20, 2004, in Scottsdale, to Rosholt’s final cash withdrawal in Las Vegas, dated January 19, 2005; Rosholt’s black 1989 Toyota 4Runner, discovered on April 19 in the expansive parking lot of the Silverton Casino in Las Vegas; security camera images of Rosholt making ATM transactions; signed receipts from credit-card purchases including the final $9 receipt to Sparkle Cleaners, dated January 18, 2005.
Rosholt’s credit- and debit-card receipts, his truck and ATM images provide no proof of foul play. Juarez says, “We have security camera shots of John from the ATMs. We can place him here in Las Vegas, alive in January. It doesn’t appear he was being robbed or coerced.” He adds, “All his personal possessions were in his truck. Though foul play is not ruled out, nothing we have supports it.”
At 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a medium build, gray-streaked brown hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and nondescript wire-rimmed glasses, Rosholt could easily blend into a crowd. In all pictures, he’s wearing an easy grin—part of his poker face. Brian McCray, Vegas climbing ace and owner of Flyin’ Brian Resoles, says, “I met him in Red Rocks at Oak Creek and he had all these free buffet tickets from playing poker. We were totally dirtbagging it and went to Binion’s. John was somewhat aloof and always kept a poker face. There were times when he’d be really quiet, but that’s just John.”
Rosholt deliberately cultivated his unobtrusive persona. Lamb says, “At the table, John dressed almost like a businessman. He was never one to draw attention to himself and he was always very disciplined and knew the odds.”
Rosholt once told John Heisel that when he compared his two pastimes, he felt that climbing was the real gamble, the only one where you could lose your life.
Rosholt played the popular Texas Hold ’em and seven-card stud, but his favorite game was Omaha. While Hold ’em is high on the feeding chain—its pace makes it the choice of the World Series of Poker —Omaha is more about waiting for rare instances of enormous advantage. As one poker expert puts it, “Omaha has very little gamble to it, with less playable hands than Hold ’em. It’s tortoise poker. Hold ’em is for the rabbits. Generally, winning Omaha players make more money per hour than their equally skilled Hold ’em counterparts.” In other words, if you are patient, you can win big. So, with thousands of dollars changing hands so rapidly, a winning Rosholt could have become a ripe target.
Though it’s possible that Rosholt wound up in trouble over poker, the people who knew him stress his scrupulous caution when facing the big risks and temptations of the game.
Lamb says, “Vegas is Vegas. There’s always danger, and if you walk out with thousands you might make a tempting target. But John was always cautious. He used to keep a safety-deposit box in the hotels where he’d gamble. If he won big, he’d deposit the money and come back later.” Lamb continues, “John would deliberately lose a hand if he felt like any trouble was coming.”
What’s really disturbing to Lamb is the location of Rosholt’s abandoned vehicle. “They found his truck at the casino,” he says. “The [Silverton] … would be a great place to rendezvous [with someone he met playing poker] for a trip to Red Rocks. He might have invited the wrong person and gotten popped.”
Off the grid and due south of the “Glitter Gulch” of downtown Vegas, the Silverton Hotel and Casino is the self-proclaimed “Home of the Best Players’ Club in Vegas.” Besides hosting former top-shelf musical acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, it’s home to a pro bass shop and a host of theme eateries. The Silverton is located off Blue Diamond Highway, the main artery feeding traffic to Red Rocks. It would have been an ideal staging point for Rosholt to meet someone and launch a climbing or hiking foray. But, at the time he vanished, Rosholt was suffering from bursitis in his toe and a shoulder injury, making it unlikely he would go climbing. Maybe he had gone hiking. He had spoken to friends like McCray about a big, undeveloped rock face that he was sure existed—a veritable jackpot for a climber of Rosholt’s caliber and motivation. (Watkins once pried out of her modest brother that he’d done up to 300 first ascents.) Maybe he wanted to scope the area. And his blue Arc’teryx hiking pack was missing from among his possessions.
The obvious supposition is that Rosholt met someone at the poker table and walked into a treacherous end. If he was having a winning streak, then he would have had loads of money. John was a creature of habit, and his credit/debit-card record shows an almost clocklike withdrawal pattern. He drew out $200 28 times from December 20 to January 19 (he was scrupulous about soliciting ATMs with no finance charges). That’s a total of $5,600. After some digging, Watkins discovered that no deposits were made in Rosholt’s account from mid-December on. One can spin these facts in either direction—Rosholt, losing big, kept having to finance his games; or Rosholt, winning big, kept his ongoing investment consistent, judiciously protecting his winnings, maybe for a really big game.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that if Rosholt met with a fellow climber or hiker and both got into an accident, it should have raised some attention in the area’s relatively small and tight climbing community. If there was no accident, we are left with murder or Rosholt wandering the Vegas area with amnesia.
Were such a hypothetical disappearance to occur anywhere else, one might reasonably expect a quick end to the mystery. But it’s alarmingly common for people to go missing in Las Vegas. Detective Juarez says, “I’ve been here since 1985. This year has been unusually high in terms of missing persons. We are averaging 900 to 1,000 cases per month—you do the math.” He adds, “So many folks come here to lose themselves. In this adult Disneyland, it’s easy to do.”
Juarez says something that points to yet another possibility. “People sometimes have meltdowns and decide they need some time. Some people come and discover demons inside they never knew existed.”
Given what we now know, was Rosholt the archetypal control freak? Did he finally snap in the place whose very slogan —“What Happens Here, Stays Here”— encourages escapism? Probably not, but his personality ought to reflect his behavior and, perhaps, offer some clues. Rosholt was not only systematic in his profession, but also calculated in all aspects of life.
Rosholt was neat. He kept his Scottsdale house in immaculate order. Watkins took photos a few months after his disappearance. Though they reveal a bedroom and garage with several months of dust accumulation, all his possessions (including years of accumulated gear and books) are organized.
Such control seemed to pervade every aspect of Rosholt’s life—including his diet. Steve “Roadie” Seats, one of Rosholt’s climbing partners, recalls his structured Zone diet.
“[Rosholt] was, or is, a freak about that … I remember him opening a can of tuna and only eating half.”
Watkins remembers, “John told me, a few years ago, that he figured out that his body-fat count was too low and he had to add three more cashews to his protein powder meals. That was so John.”
It’s easy to imagine that such control could snap in the face of a profession with so much uncertainty. Though Rosholt was known to have losing streaks up to three months long and lose as much as $6,000 in one night, he always kept an even keel. He told John Heisel, “I try not to get too down when I lose or too high when I win.”
But tides of fortune had shifted in recent years. Rosholt took a break from poker, playing the volatile day-trading game, and his income suffered from a slow economy. His 2004 IRS return states a negative income. Meanwhile, his injuries deprived him of his lifelong standby—rock climbing.
Watkins says, “He couldn’t climb and I knew it was depressing him. I told him maybe he should get a job, be a climbing guide, work at a gym … but I don’t think he liked the thought of losing his independence—years ago he told me he never settled down because, ‘There is no way a woman would put up with my poker or climbing schedules.’” Watkins adds, “If John ever had a serious girlfriend, I never heard about it.”
It must have been difficult to be 48, in financial straits and alone on the holidays. There was no soothing reprieve like climbing and, according to Watkins, it wasn’t Rosholt’s style to dive into substance escape. His sense of control, discipline and childhood experience with a manic-depressive, alcoholic mother negated that option. Given his history and circumstances, it’s not a stretch to imagine Rosholt having the type of “meltdown” Juarez refers to when he says, “Oftentimes, people who are methodical and controlled have a hard time of it.”
Could Rosholt have deliberately disappeared? With his reclusive lifestyle and family history of depression, it’s possible. But Rosholt was extremely thrifty and left a lot behind, including decade-old 5.10 Altias and Scarpa Lightnings that had plainly seen multiple resoles.
Watkins says, “He would never borrow a dollar from anyone. He never once asked his friends or me for a cent. He was proud and would always pay his own way. Then again, he’d never offer to pay for your sandwich.”
She debunks the idea of any deliberate disappearing act. “There is no way in the world he would walk away from his vehicle, which was full of all his stuff. If he didn’t plan on returning, he would not have left his bicycle, new computer or brand-new surround-sound speakers. He would have sold them. He never would have left two brand-new pair of trail-running shoes. And he wouldn’t do anything that was not planned out.”
Darin Holt concurs. “I know for a fact that John would never walk away from his house.” Rosholt had half—over $100,000 —of his mortgage paid off.
Rosholt’s guidebooks contain pages full of detailed notes on gear, beta and partner history. His selection of outdoor interest and climbing history books include titles like Yosemite Climber and Games Climbers Play, all in fine condition. There’s also a photo album with shots of Rosholt sweating on overhanging Thai limestone, wall-climbing in the Valley and jamming in the desert. A few glossy eight-and-a-half by eleven prints show a topless girl on the beach.
Watkins hands me a photocopied sheet from a textbook on mental-health disorders—specifically, dissociative fugue. The book states, “Dissociative fugue is a disorder in which a person has one or more episodes of sudden, unexpected and purposeful travel from home, during which he can’t remember some or all of his past life and either has lost memory of who he is or has formed a new identity.”
At first I dismiss the fugue as the analysis of a sister who just wants to believe her brother is alive. But a day later I do some digging. According to psychology texts, people in a fugue state “may disappear, running away to a completely different geographical region and assuming another identity. A bewildered facial expression is a common symptom of the condition that can involve both physical and psychological escape from a stressful environment. The condition often follows interpersonal events in which a person is exposed to rage, threats to their self-esteem and challenges to habitual patterns of impulse control.”
Rosholt had the predispositions. He was brilliant and reclusive, engaged in a stressful profession, and possibly exposed to violence or threats.
Rosholt’s final credit-card signature was different enough from other existing signatures that the Vegas police started paying real attention. I’m no handwriting expert, but after viewing the signature and comparing it to that on his will and other earlier receipts, I saw a similar script, but one scrawled in a hurry—or under stress. Furthermore, according to Watkins, Juarez mentioned that he felt Rosholt appeared “off” and “confused” in that final ATM shot.
Ask around and you’ll get plenty of opinions. Howard Lamb, the poker player, breaks the possibilities down to odds. He says, “I hope they find him wandering around and get him whatever help he needs. But I’d give 50-50 odds on whether he’s alive or dead.”
Jill Rosholt, John’s other sister and a psychic, believes he is hiding out in Mexico. “My personal feeling is John is alive and going through a profound transformation preventing him from being in touch with reality or his loved ones. I am hoping for a miraculous resurfacing. This is based on my intuitive powers, vivid dreams and knowledge of both his personality and circumstances of his disappearance.”
Steve Seats says, “I don’t think he’s dead, and here’s why: Rosholt was conservative. He played the odds and always bent them to his favor. The last I heard from him, he was doing this online poker thing out of the Cayman Islands. He’d play three out of the five hands at a time. He had it all figured out. I think he just decided to take a break. I’d lay money on it.”
Jane Watkins has her own perspective. As I leave her home, she places her hand on the head of a hip-high wooden bear statue. The bear sits adjacent to the front door, holding a sign carved with the word “WELCOME.” She smiles hopefully and says, “John, you’re welcome back any time.”
Pete Takeda lives in Boulder.
Postscript: In November 2010 Rosholt’s remains were found on a ledge in Red Rock Conservation Area outside Las Vegas. Whether he fell soloing or while scoping a route is unknown.