Philadelphia’s murder wave crested yet again on February 12th when self described real estate investor Vincent Julius Dortch shot and killed 3 men in the Philly waterfront offices of a website development and marketing firm called Zigzag Net. The murder victims were board members of another company, Watson International Inc. Vincent Dortch was a Watson investor. Dortch had called a meeting of the Watson board, claiming he’d found a new investor. The meeting was held at Zigzag because several Watson International board members were also involved with Zigzag. Instead of a new investor, Dortch brought an AK-47 pistol and a .40-caliber Glock.

Six people were in the Zigzag offices when Dortch arrived. Three were Watson board members, two were Watson investors, and one was a Zigzag employee. Dortch ripped out the phone and made the investors bind the other men with duct tape. After accusing board members Robert Norris and Mark Norris (brothers) and James Reif of defrauding him, Dortch shot them. First in the body, and later through the head. The Zigzag employee, Patrick Sweeney, was also shot but survived. The investors, though eventually tied up, were spared. At one point, Dortch went out of the room. Despite being severely wounded Patrick Sweeney managed to free his hands, splice the phone wires together, and call the police. When the police arrived they exchanged fire with Dortch. Dortch ducked behind a door and shot himself fatally in the head.

Vincent Dortch was in his forties, as were the men he murdered. Dortch resided in Delaware across the Pennsylvania border. He’d drifted through several locations and occupations and had a financial history of bankruptcies and liens. At some point he worked with Watson board member and real estate maven Robert Norris (also a Delaware resident) rehabbing homes. Most recently, Dortch was a conductor-in-training on the east coast line of CSX freight trains. In early 2006, via his connection with Robert Norris, Dortch had invested $200,000 in a Watson International real estate deal. The money may have come from his wife’s retirement fund. By the beginning of 2007, Dortch believed Watson International’s execs had cheated him out of the investment.

The deal in which Dortch invested was based in Broome County, New York. Broome County abuts Pennsylvania to the north. Broome County is perceived by many of its residents as a place where politically connected old boys rule. A perception not uncommon in New York State’s post-industrial places. The Watson deal involved the proposed redevelopment of a property once owned by IBM. IBM was founded in Broome County in the early 20th century and was a linchpin of the local economy for decades. By now IBM has largely departed for foreign shores. The company has been divesting itself of its Broome County properties for years. At times with the assistance of local and state government.

The IBM property at the heart of the Watson International deal was a once grand country club. Set on the banks of the Susquehanna River, it was part of an enormous IBM recreational complex called the Heritage Country Club. The complex included the country club building itself, a mansion called The Homestead, agolf course and hundreds of wooded acres. IBM closedthe Homestead mansion in 1995 and sold off the entire complex in early 2004.

The Heritage Country Club complex was purchased by a group composed of Walsh & Sons Construction (a prominent family of developers active in Broome County) and the Links at Hiawatha Landing. The latter a golf course in Apalachin, 15 miles west of Binghamton, Broome County’s largest city. Another member was the Bay Ridge Investment Group, an entity not listed in the New York State Department Division of Corporations. Google shows a company by that name based in Armenia, headed by an official in that country’s ministry of foreign affairs. However, other entities containing the phrase “Bay Ridge” in different permutations are registered in New York State. Perhaps news coverage* of the 2004 transaction was mistaken re the exact name.

At the time of the 2004 purchase, the new owners of the Heritage Country Club conplex (renamed Traditions at the Glen Resort and Conference Center) announced plans to revitalize the facility. Saying they’d already begun the process by “gutting part of the second floor” of The Homestead. The Heritage Country Club building itself was aparently not included in their plans.

In January 2006, Watson International purchased the country club structure plus 9 acres of land from the Homestead Village Development Group. An entity owned by members of Walsh Construction, which is now developing a hefty chunk of former Heritage Country Club land. Watson International paid Walsh $1.325 million.A private mortgage covered $1.1 million of the deal. Watson board members Robert Norris, Mark Norris, and James Reif put up no money of their own. Watson International announced big plans for their piece of the Heritage. The Watson website (designed by Zigzag) touted the upcoming rebirth. The facility had been “masterplanned” to become a “World Class Entertainment and Banquet Facility”. The website presentation was somewhat confusing: it seemed to suggest that “900 acres of rolling green hills” and a “18 Hole Full Service Golf Course” were part of what had been renamed “The Watson Complex”.

Why all the Watson? The name “Watson” evokes IBM’s glory days in Broome County. IBM was founded by Thomas Watson. Robert Norris, Mark Norris, and James Reif were originally from Broome County and had been childhood friends. Jim Reif, a former Broome County sheriff’s deputy and a one time Republican primary candidate for sheriff, still lived in the county and was involved with several local business ventures. Yet despite the local references and connections, Watson International is listed with the New York State Department as a foreign business corporation and was incorporated in Delaware in 2005.

Like Jim Reif, Delaware resident Robert Norris was also a former law enforcement officer. He served 14 years as a patrolman in New Castle, Delaware before retiring to concentrate on real estate. His brother, Watson board member Mark Norris, was also CEO of Zigzag Net in Philadelphia. The only surviving member of the Watson International board is Vasantha Dammavalam. Vice president of technology for Zigzag Net and CEO of Aplakiv Systems in New York City. Aplakiv is described thusly by Asia-sourcing.net: “leading importer/provider for Specialized and Custom Internet Software, Building End to End E-Commerce Solutions, Web Site Design & Hosting, Placement of Technical Consultants”. Aplakiv’s website (designed by Zigzag) lists an impressive array of clients. Including Goldman Sachs, the city of New York, and the U.S. Coast Guard. As a Watson board member, Vasantha Dammavalam was targeted for death by Vincent Dortch. But at the last minute Dammavalam, who lives in New York City, decided not to attend the meeting at Zigzag. Two of Dammavalam’s relatives did attend and were taken hostage. Dortch spared them because they were investors, not board members.

As said, Zigzag Net is located on the Philadelphia waterfront. In the city’s labyrinthine old Navy Yards. The waterfront area has been undergoing a taxpayer assisted revitalization for many years. Of late, the waterfront, along with Philadelphia International Airport, has been in the news in relation to federal probes of corrupt public contract practices involving Philadelphia’s municipal government.

According to an interview with Mark Norris in the November 2005 newsletter of the Philadelphia Minority Business Enterprise Council (MBEC) Zigzag Net clients included the Philadelphia health department and police department, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and Philadelphia International Airport. The same interview cites Zigzag’s clients in New Jersey. (New Jersey borders Pennsylvania on the east.) Among them the South Jersey Transit Authority, Atlantic City Airport, and the City of Camden. The Zigzag website also lists clients in Delaware; including the New Castle County Police Department and the city of Wilmington. (Though the latter denies doing business with Zigzag.) But despite a seemingly full dance card, Zigzag had financial problems. Federal and state liens for back taxes and unemployment compensation had been levied. An earlier incarnation of Zigzag had gone under. The mortgage holder on a building Mark Norris owned on South Broad Street in Philadelphia had been forced to foreclose, after not receiving payment for several years.

Watson International also had problems. In late June of 2006, a severe storm battered Broome County. The Heritage Country Club aka Watson Complex was flooded, one major section completely submerged. The flood water contained silt and raw sewage plus already existing asbestos from the building. (Another environmental issue had apparently arisen earlier on surrounding property, involving leaks from an abandoned fuel terminal.) After the waters receded, mold took hold. But since no plans for any work had been filed with local building officials by Watson International after purchasing the Heritage, it’s possible no restoration efforts were impacted. A restoration study however, was done in early 2006. By Keystone Associates of Binghamton, a prominent Broome County architectural firm. Though Keystone didn’t revisit the building post-flood, one representative of the firm thinks the project is still viable: “the flooding just changed the equation.”** Watson’s execs seemed to have believed likewise. In October 2006, Watson amended its corporate papers so as to allow the issuing of 1 million shares of stock. Investors were invited to come aboard.

Remaining Watson Board member Vasantha Dammavalam claims the Heritage aka Watson Complex project is going just fine. Saying an insurance settlement for the flood damage, in the form of a check for $1.8 million dollars from Selective Insurance Group Inc. had been received, but not yet cashed by the Watson board. On the other hand, Jim Reif’s brother says the settlement may have come in 2 checks. With a smaller amount (roughly $700,000) arriving earlier. He also claims there was a 3 against 3 division among the Watson executives as to how to spend the settlement. With the New York City/Dammavalam side wanting to cash the check and get out, and the Broome County/Philly side wanting to continue. There has also been speculation on a Broome County online bulletin board, BC Voice, that the mortgage holder on the Heritage aka Watson Complex was required to sign off on the insurance settlement and hesitated to do so. Fearing the money would disappear and that the flood damaged depreciated property would go into default. But this may only be a rumor spread by what Binghamton sophisticates call “local Bing-a-lings”.

Whatever the case, Vincent Dortch suspected his $200,000 investment had been pocketed by the Watson board members and/or used to prop up Zigzag Net. He wanted his money back and may have been disappointed when he didn’t receive it via the insurance settlement. In January, Dortch told a fellow conductor at CSX that the Watson board members were showing up with “new cars” and “lots of bling” and that “he had a feeling these guys were committing fraud”.

By the time Dortch arrived at Zigzag Net on February 12th, equipped with duct tape and armed to the teeth, that feeling had hardened into murderous conviction. After telling the Watson Board members to “say your prayers” he opened fire.

By late February, the Philadelphia Police were wrapping up their investigation of the Watson International murders and Dortch’s suicide. Patrick Sweeney, the wounded Zigzag Net employee, was in critical condition for days and wasn’t questioned. Vincent Dortch’s wife refused to be interviewed by the police. The FBI have been asked to investigate the fraud claim made by Dortch. According to a police sergeant quoted in the 02/16/07 Delaware News Journal, the complexity of the case, and the differing stories being told by those involved, will require the FBI to “get deep, deep into the books and deals that were being made”.

The Philadelphia blog Philebrity puts it this way: “We have not yet heard the beginning of the craziness that surrounded this mess.”

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

*New Owners Share Plans For Heritage Country Club, News Channel 34, 01/30/04

**Former country club site deemed a viable project, despite flooding, Nancy Dooling, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, 02/17/07

 

Sources include but are not limited to: “Investor’s feud cited in buildup to triple slaying,” Doug Schneider, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin 02/22/07

“Puzzling over man behind massacre,” Larry King, Mari A. Schaefer, Jane M. Von Bergen, Philadelphia Inquirer, 02/18/07

“FBI joins Philadelphia slayings probe,” Andrew Tangel, Delaware News Journal, 02/16/08

“$1.8M insurance check tied to slaying case,” Brian Liberatore, Doug Schneider, Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, 02/15/07

“Excited about plans, then came the flood,” Wendy Ruderman, Philadelphia Daily News, 02/15/07

“Witness tells of anguish of Navy Yard killer,” Larry King, John Shiffman, Philadelphia Inquirer, 02/15/07

“Investors’ plans ruined by flood,” Jane M. Von Bergen, Philadelphia Inquirer, 02/14/07

“Philebrity Research Desk: The Long E-Rail Of Zigzag Net, Inc.,” 02/14/07 www.philebrity.com

“Slain CEO remembered for his clever marketing mind,” Brian X. McCrone, 02/13/07. Metro Philadelphia

“Four dead at Philadelphia Meeting,” Associated Press, 02/13/07

Oops Department: In the original version of this article Mondo QT made a big blooper and confused the Heritage Country Club building with The Homestead mansion. Watson International was developing the Heritage, not the Homestead. Repeat: Heritage NOT Homestead. Heritage NOT Homestead…

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