March 1, 2007: 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, a
golf course and hundreds of wooded acres. IBM closed
the 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
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
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*New Owners Share Plans For Heritage Country Club, News Channel
**Former country club site deemed a viable project, despite
flooding, Nancy Dooling, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin,
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.,"
"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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