On a freight train bound for North Jersey, a polite, hulking trainee dialed his cell phone repeatedly, wondering aloud where his money had gone.

Two weeks later, Vincent J. Dortch became Philadelphia's worst mass murderer in six years. He then died by his own hand, according to police - his financial fears unreconciled.

Dortch, 44, had worked since October as a conductor-in-training for CSX Corp. But as he told his trainer on that Jan. 30 trek, he also had big money tied up in a tenuous New York land deal, and suspected his partners of cheating him. "He was calm, saying he wanted to get a meeting together, to have a discussion," veteran conductor Mark Chalupa recalled yesterday. "He said he wanted an accounting of the money."

As the train rumbled from Philadelphia to Newark, N.J., Dortch made about five phone calls, seeking to arrange such a meeting, Chalupa said.

"He wasn't hysterical or anything like that," Chalupa said.

By then, however, Dortch, of Newark, Del., already had armed himself for Monday night's bloody rampage at Philadelphia's Navy Yard.

On Jan. 20, police say, Dortch bought two handguns at a store in Delaware. He used them to turn Monday's investors' meeting into a shooting gallery, murdering three business partners and wounding a fourth man before killing himself.

"I was shocked," said Chalupa, who returned to his Philadelphia home Tuesday evening to learn that his quiet trainee had been identified as the Navy Yard commando.

Dortch had grown obsessed with the $200,000 he said he had sunk in Watson International Inc. A year ago, the company paid $1.3 million for a 200-year-old country club in Union, N.Y., only to see it heavily damaged by flooding last summer.

Yet that was not Dortch's prime focus, Chalupa said. It was the honesty of his fellow investors.

"He was telling me about his deal in New York, and that he had a feeling that these guys were committing fraud . . . ," Chalupa said. "He said these guys were drawing money from the account, this $1.3 million. They were showing up with new cars, lots of bling and so forth. He wanted to know where the money was going."

Chalupa, who was interviewed late Tuesday by Philadelphia homicide detectives, said that nothing about Dortch's manner suggested violence.

"He was very respectful," he said of Dortch, who appeared to be over 6 feet tall and more than 200 pounds. "I'm a trainer, and he paid attention and spoke well. I don't recall him saying any cuss words during the entire 12 hours."

Police have not determined the merit of Dortch's suspicions. Homicide Sgt. Anthony McFadden said city detectives plan to cede that part of the probe to federal authorities.

But a Watson International investor in New York told the Associated Press yesterday that no money had been lost.

To the contrary, Vasantha Dammavalam said, Watson's development plan had been "going quite well." He said that Watson had reached an insurance settlement last month for the flood damage, and that investors were moving forward with plans to open an entertainment and banquet facility.

Dammavalam had been connected to Monday's meeting by speaker phone until Dortch pulled out the wires and opened fire. "We exchanged some basic pleasantries . . . then the phone went dead," he said.

Killed were key investors Mark David Norris, 46, of Pilesgrove, N.J.; his brother Robert E. Norris, 41, of Newark, Del.; and James M. Reif Jr., 42, of Union, N.Y. A fourth man, Patrick Sweeney, 31, of Maple Shade, an employee of Mark Norris' marketing company, was critically wounded.

After trading gunfire with police, Dortch killed himself, they said.

Two other investors were found unharmed, but bound tightly with duct tape. They told police that Dortch had wanted to drive to New York and kill Dammavalam, but that they had talked Dortch out of it.

In an interview yesterday, Reif's widow, Sue, said she had urged her husband Monday afternoon to skip the meeting.

"I was mad at him for going," Reif said. "I told him he didn't need to be there. I told him before he left that I thought Vincent was full of crap."

James Reif, a former sheriff's deputy, also was a trained hostage negotiator, his widow said, a man who "can talk himself out of anything."

Robert Norris, a high school classmate of James Reif's in Endicott, N.Y., had also worked in law enforcement, as an officer in New Castle County, Del.

"They were unarmed and if they could have done something, they would have," Sue Reif said. Dortch "must have just ambushed them."

She said she had met her husband's killer just once - last summer, before the flood.

She found him "very nice," echoing many others who have crossed Dortch's path.

"What was that man thinking?" she said. "He knew Jim had four kids and that Bobby had three.

"It just doesn't make any sense . . . . He must have just snapped."

Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this report were Inquirer staff writers Jane M. Von Bergen, Joseph A. Gambardello and Mari A. Schaefer. It also includes information from the Associated Press.