Main Line nannies tell tales of terror

A Villanova heiress, now jailed, paid richly but fired furiously, say those who know.

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The Main Line mansion of Susan Tabas Tepper. Former employees say Tepper was erratic and temperamental - but paid well.

They still dream about Susan Tabas Tepper. And their dreams aren't sweet.

"I can't get her out of my head," said a nanny who worked for the volatile Main Line socialite for many years. "It was like a war zone, and you think, 'Did we all really go through this?' It was awful."

Like most of the eight former employees who agreed to talk about the convicted nanny-beater, charged May 23 with assaulting a second employee, the woman requested anonymity.

Many at Tepper's seven-acre Villanova estate are illegal immigrants who worry she will report them to authorities. Others get paid under the table and don't want trouble from the IRS.

They all describe Tepper, 44, as a temperamental woman who could be funny and generous, but also demanding and explosive. They say she berated, bullied and pushed around the hired help, especially the immigrants who cleaned her house and cared for her four children, ages 2 through 13.

Why did they stay? Money. The banking heiress paid up to $100 an hour, thousands of dollars for overnight stays or to lure back those who quit or were fired in a fit of pique, say former employee Xiomara D. Salinas and others. Some housekeepers earned $100,000 a year.

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"She treats the people so bad," said Salinas, 43, a Nicaraguan immigrant who said Tepper thrashed her on May 21, 2006, for failing to remove old produce from the refrigerator.

The former president of the Philadelphia Polo Club, who has enjoyed Donald Trump's hospitality at his Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., was sentenced in February to a year's probation and other penalties, including anger-management classes.

But three months later, on May 20, Tepper allegedly attacked another worker, Urszula Kordzior, known as Ula, when she tried to flee her roiling boss. Tepper, charged with two counts of simple assault and harassment and violating probation, is in Montgomery County Prison awaiting a hearing Wednesday.

If convicted, she could spend a year in jail instead of on her Eagle Farm Road property, which once belonged to Philadelphia's venerable Fitler family and includes stables, a baseball diamond and servants' quarters.

Tepper maintains the charges were made up by an employee who was being fired. Kordzior is exploiting his client, said Marc Steinberg, Tepper's attorney. Steinberg nevertheless sent a psychologist to evaluate Tepper in jail, he said, "because this happened once before."

Kordzior "had a scratch on the cheek, but she went to the hospital anyway. One has to wonder why," Steinberg said.

Stacy Leshner said she had witnessed Tepper's fury.

"Oh, my God, she was so mean to Ula," said the Pennsylvania State University student, who worked for Tepper last summer and last month. "When Ula was there, I was really, really happy because I wouldn't get yelled at. Ula was taking all the heat."

Kordzior, who is Polish, was fired and rehired repeatedly over 10 years, ex-workers said.

"She told me, 'I hate Ula. I can't stand her,' " said the longtime nanny, who still has flashbacks. "She would say to her kids, 'Isn't Ula ugly? Tell her she's ugly.' "

One night Kordzior was crying after an enraged Tepper grabbed and twisted the front of her shirt, the nanny recalled. "She was very hands-on like that and in your face."

Police said that on May 20, Tepper scratched Kordzior's face and lip and shoved her to the ground as the housekeeper tried to get in her car. Tepper also allegedly called the woman's 9-year-old daughter a "bitch" and pushed her out of the way.

Tepper did not respond to a letter sent to prison requesting an interview. Kordzior could not be reached.

Tony Fercos, Tepper's boyfriend, was present at the blow-up. Tepper had fired Kordzior for not finishing some work, he said. When Kordzior tried to get in a car her boss had lent her to commute home to New Jersey, Tepper snatched the keys.

"They were struggling for the keys," Fercos said. "The worst thing was [Kordzior's] daughter was there and got hysterical. I had to separate them."

Tepper called police to tell them that an employee was stealing her car, Fercos said.

"I don't know why it got so far that she's in jail," he said.

Former employees said Tepper treated foreigners worst.

"She say, 'You in the United States. Why don't you learn English?' " said Salinas, who has filed a civil suit seeking damages. "She say many bad words, all the time. Not only to me, but many American people."

Marek Betak, 34, of the Czech Republic, started as a painter at the estate but stayed for about a year to do a variety of jobs, including care for Tepper's baby.

"She acts crazy. She was angry every day," Betak said. "It was too much yelling." He put up with it, he said, "because she paid me good money."

The divorcee could be benevolent to trusted employees, invariably American or English. She invited five nannies to her son Fitz's lavish bar mitzvah Sept. 16 at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue. A woman who cared for her baby, Baron, for about a year said Tepper always had been nice to her.

"She respected me because I spoke English and was from the United States," said the woman, who quit after the incident with Salinas because she didn't believe Tepper's account. "She was a very, very good mother."

Shanin Specter, 49, a lawyer from Gladwyne and a friend of 20 years, said Tepper was a decent woman who had had problems, including a child treated for cancer last year.

"Her husband is gone. Her support systems are minimal," Specter wrote to The Inquirer in an e-mail in which he criticized the paper's characterization of Tepper.

Money flows through Tepper's hands like water, employees said. Leshner, who was hired after serving Tepper and her kids at Bertucci's in Bryn Mawr, said that the first time she visited the mansion, the children weren't there. Tepper gave her $200 and sent her home.

She baby-sat for several days before returning to school, then called Tepper this spring. During the week she worked last month, she saw Tepper "flip out" on Kordzior several times.

One night Tepper got mad because the kids hadn't been fed, said Leshner, who recalled that the children had refused the dinner Kordzior prepared.

Tepper "was screaming, 'Don't tell me they don't want dinner. You're just lazy. You don't want to do your job,' " said Leshner, 19, of Wynnewood.

Tepper had firm rules for the help: No sitting or talking.

"If she caught you talking, forget about it. You were done," said a 28-year-old American nanny who earned up to $5,000 a week and left in January after two years.

Every day each member of Tepper's battalion got a legal pad listing pages and pages of tasks. If something didn't get done, Tepper would explode, workers said.

"She'd say the most important thing was taking care of the children," said the nanny who compared the house to a war zone. "But the minute you'd sit down to play with the children, she says, 'Don't sit, don't sit, don't sit.' "

Leshner said she could never complete her chores. "She would be shouting, 'Why are you doing this? Do this instead.' . . . Then she would yell because nothing was getting done."

Less than an hour after she started working, said the 28-year-old nanny, she made her first mistake: She took Tepper's ringing cell phone to her.

"She screamed at the top of her lungs, 'Just leave it. Never touch it.' She screamed all the time at everybody," she said. Every day "you had a complete anxiety attack."

"Sometimes I feel bad for her. I really wish she would be a decent person for her kids' sake," the nanny said.

Staff worked nearly round the clock, with one shift getting the children up and another putting them to bed. They took them to activities, did the shopping, and ran errands. Some lived in. But they could be fired on the spot.

When the longtime nanny would put Dagny, Tepper's daughter, to bed, the girl would say to her, " 'I love you. You're going to be here tomorrow morning, aren't you?' They never knew if we'd be around the next day," the woman said.

Tepper, daughter of Daniel Tabas, the late hotelier and Royal Bank founder, is divorced from lawyer Kenneth Tepper, with whom she had three children. He declined to comment for this article.

Tepper had a fourth child two years ago with Fercos, of Fercos Brothers Untamed Illusion, a magic and wild-animal act for which she is marketing director. She often visits him in Las Vegas and on tour, including three months in China, and Fercos sometimes goes to her estate, former employees said. Once he brought a tiger cub.

"Only when Tony came she change a little bit. She happy," said Salinas, who has two young children and now works for another family.

Fercos, 53, called Tepper an "angel," but he also said she was controlling. Her military training - she served in the Army Reserve from 1986 to 1994 - makes her demand perfection, he said.

"She treats everybody with this kind of discipline. She start to scream, 'I want this cleaned exactly. I pay you for this. I told you 10 times to do it,' " he said.

"People are not perfect. She expects more than people can deliver sometimes," he said.

A woman who traveled with the family to Las Vegas and Florida last spring called Tepper "a ticking time bomb."

"Sometimes she'd be so nice to you, and sometimes she'd be completely crazy. . . . She got so annoyed when I asked her things," she said.

When she was sent to get medicine, the employee recalled, Tepper told her to take someone with her "because you're so stupid I don't think you can do it on your own." The woman's pay: $10,000 for one month, most days working 20 hours.

Another ex-employee was so upset about Tepper's erratic behavior that, she said, she e-mailed Lower Merion Township on Jan. 24 out of concern for those in the house.

"She not only abuses them, but doesn't pay them all their money so they have to stay," the e-mail said.

The employee received acknowledgment from police that her e-mail had reached them, but authorities say they don't know what happened to it.

For Leshner, the student, the end came after she got lost driving Tepper's son to an ice-skating lesson in Aston. She called Tepper for directions and was told to pull over. Tepper arrived with Fercos and, after berating her, drove her home and told her never to call again, Leshner said.

"I cried for three hours. I was rocked to the core," she said. "She's so scary."

With Tepper's life in chaos, Fercos said he was taking care of his son Baron, who will accompany him to the Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee, where the act is booked this summer. The other children are with their father.

Fercos talks to Tepper in prison daily, he said. She is reading, exercising and, perhaps, rethinking her management style.

"She might realize the world cannot be so perfect the way she wants and not to argue with people," he said. "She's already a different person right now. Sometimes jail is good for you."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.