As she often does at this time of year, Mob boss John Gotti's widow, Victoria, has decked out her modest two-story Queens home with fake cobwebs, pumpkins and cutouts of witches and warlocks. Though Victoria, 62, finds it hard to get excited about Halloween these days, her 14 grandchildren still expect it. "You have a bunch of little faces all staring up at you," the Gotti matriarch tells PEOPLE from her doorway. "You can't tell them [you didn't decorate because] you are depressed."

These days there is certainly plenty to dampen her spirits. Two miles from her trick-or-treat tableau, FBI agents are working on a real-life tale of ghosts—digging up a vacant lot for Mafia victims, including the body of the Gottis' former neighbor John Favara, who disappeared a few months after accidentally hitting 12-year-old Frank Gotti with his car in March 1980, killing him. Meanwhile her daughter Victoria, 41, and her three teenage sons have turned the family into a Mafia version of the Osbournes with the cable series Growing Up Gotti (see box). Even her son John Jr. is doing his part to distance himself from the family business. "My father couldn't have loved me to push me into this life," Junior was heard to say on jailhouse tapes made by the FBI and released by his lawyer. "I am ashamed of who I am."

John Sr. might be less than pleased with the current state of the families he left behind—both of them. The power of the Gambinos has been eroded in recent years, experts say, by turncoats eager to squeal to avoid stiff sentences under RICO prosecutions. "No one wants to become the boss anymore, because you become an immediate target for law enforcement," says retired NYPD detective Joseph Coffey. That bad luck is perhaps best seen in Junior, the 40-year-old former bodybuilder who was due for release from prison in September after serving a six-year term for racketeering. Just over a month before his release, however, he was hit with a raft of new charges, including the attempted 1992 murder of Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, who had been bad-mouthing Gotti senior on his radio talk show. In a series of excerpts from jailhouse tapes filed in court papers by his lawyer in late September as part of an unsuccessful attempt to get him out on bail, Junior denounces his late father and the Mob life. "I would rather clean up s--- in Central Park than be involved with...these mutts," he tells a family friend at one point.

Junior clearly has a softer spot for his mother. When Victoria called him recently, worried about the new indictments, she says he told her, "Mom, you be strong. The only thing that can't be reversed is death." This exchange is in keeping with the image Junior's lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman paints of his client as a diaper-changing Little League coach who wrote an inspirational children's book, The Children of Shaolin Forest, while in prison. But Sliwa, who was shot in the groin during the attack, has a different take. He calls Junior an "espresso-sipping psychotic killer. I just want to give the guy a lot of time to write a lot of children's books."

It's tough to imagine John Sr. channeling J.K. Rowling. Though labeled the Dapper Don after becoming head of the Gambino family in 1985, Gotti ruled with an iron fist. At the Queens dig, the FBI has so far uncovered human bones, a leather jacket and other items that won't be officially identified for weeks but are believed to belong to two Bonnano family mobsters whose bodies were dumped by Gotti's Mob crew as a favor to Bonnano boss Joseph Massino. Thus far, however, there doesn't appear to be any sign of Favara. His son Scott told the New York Daily News the family would like to hold a proper funeral. "We just hope that this is him," he said.

In 1980 the Favaras were neighbors of the Gottis in Howard Beach. Their son Scott was friends with the Gotti's son John, but Victoria says the furniture-store manager, then 51, never apologized after running over Frank. Nonetheless, she adds, "that would not excuse any kind of violence." Fearing for his life, Favara planned to move away, but he vanished on July 28, 1980, when, police say, several men kidnapped him, shot him twice and beat him with a two-by-four. "We found a post-office worker who witnessed the kidnapping...but he wouldn't talk because he was petrified," says former detective Coffey. Lack of cooperation stymied the investigation.

Victoria, however, is more concerned with the ordeal of her son, who awaits a trial expected to take place next year. His mother attends most of his court dates and speaks with him regularly by phone because he doesn't want her visiting him in prison. Though Victoria supports Junior, she says she receives even more from him. "He is a pillar of strength for every one of us," she says. "Whenever I call him, he says, 'Ma, just hang in there.'"

Bob Meadows. Rebecca Paley and Fannie Weinstein in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Rebecca Paley,
  • Fannie Weinstein.