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Mob bosses in Hollywood movies tend to be tough customers, unrepentant to the end. But at his Sept. 3 sentencing in a White Plains, N.Y., federal courthouse, John Gotti, 35, the real-life head of New York City's Gambino crime family, was a study in contrition. Gotti, who took over the family firm in 1994, two years after his father, John Gotti, 57, was imprisoned for murder, had cut a deal with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty to racketeering, extortion and tax evasion. "I'm here to take my medicine," said Gotti, described by one of his lawyers as a "Mr. Mom," active in his children's PTA. "I took responsibility for what I've done." Judge Barrington Parker sentenced him to 6½ years, making him eligible for parole in 2004.

Thus another chapter in the hapless criminal career of John Gotti—called Junior by his acquaintances on both sides of the law—came to an end with a bitter pill that his father would almost certainly have refused to swallow. Now serving a life sentence at the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Ill., the elder Gotti never pleaded guilty to anything, winning acquittal at three separate trials for robbery, assault and racketeering before the feds finally took him down. By all accounts, he was not pleased to learn his son was negotiating with prosecutors. "He would have gone the whole road and fought case after case," says his longtime attorney Bruce Cutler, who maintains, for the record, that the Gotti family has no connection with organized crime. "[Junior] is very much his father's son, but he is not his father. Those shoes, they just don't make that size anymore."

Just ask Gotti Sr. "Listen to me carefully," the former Dapper Don told a visitor to the Marion prison, where he spends 21 hours a day alone in a small cell. "You'll never see another guy like me if you live to be 5,000." In transcripts of videotapes made by prison authorities during family visits in early 1998, Gotti also blasted his son's handling of the dwindling family enterprises, calling him a "babbling idiot" who surrounds himself with "imbeciles." In other tapes leaked to the New York Daily News last August, Gotti rages against his relatives for excluding him from family affairs. "You can't be more disappointed than I am in my family," he says. "Utterly impossible. Impossible."

The old man has a point. Since Junior took over the family rackets five years ago, the House of Gotti has crumbled. "Junior wasn't a moneymaker at all," says Bruce Mouw, who retired as head of the FBI's Gambino investigative unit last year. Half of Gotti's 21 crime crews have reportedly disbanded because of arrests and defections, and relentless government prosecutions have seriously weakened the organization's grip on New York City's garment, construction and garbage-hauling industries.

Bad health has compounded the Gotti clan's problems. Last September, Gotti Sr. underwent treatment for throat cancer at a prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. (Federal officials now plan to return him to Springfield for further treatment.) Just two months later, his daughter, mystery novelist Victoria Gotti, 36, who suffers from a lifelong heart ailment, was treated in a hospital in suburban New York for a potentially deadly blood clot. "We've had it pretty tough," says Gotti Sr.'s wife, also named Victoria. "It's just a very, very bad time for us."

Even during the good times, growing up Gotti has been, for Junior, a risky business. As a youth in Queens, N.Y, he "was a very respectful boy," says a neighbor, "one of the best kids you could meet." Junior was 14 and off at boarding school—New York Military Academy in upstate Cornwall on Hudson, alma mater of real estate mogul Donald Trump and director Francis Ford Coppola—when tragedy visited the family in 1980. Junior's little brother Frankie, 12, was riding a minibike when he was accidentally struck and killed by a van. The driver, a neighbor named John Favara, 51, disappeared shortly afterward, never to be seen again. Police reportedly believe he was cut in two with a chain saw by soldiers loyal to Gotti.

Shortly after graduating in 1982, Junior returned to the old neighborhood, where he developed a reputation as a brawler. Around 1985, the year his father achieved national notoriety by having Gambino godfather Paul Castellano shot outside a Manhattan steak house, Junior first popped up on tapes secretly recorded by the FBI at the Ravenite Social Club, a Gambino hangout in Manhattan's Little Italy. By then owner of his own trucking business, Junior was, according to law enforcement officials, inducted into the Mafia—given his "button"—in a ceremony in late 1988 and was quickly promoted to capo, in charge of a crew of mobsters. (Junior's siblings are apparently not involved in the family business. Angela, 37, is a home-maker; Peter, 24, is a businessman; and Victoria publishes her new novel, Superstar, next year.)

Junior's 1990 wedding to Kim Albanese, then 22 and noticeably pregnant, was a lavish affair at Manhattan's posh Helmsley Palace Hotel, where then-owner Leona hoisted an Italian flag in the couple's honor. But by then U.S. prosecutors, armed with hours of incriminating tapes, were closing in on John Sr.

Until he tapped Junior as the boss in 1994, the elder Gotti is believed to have run the Gambino rackets from his prison cell. Each month he is allowed six phone calls and five visits with relatives, who remain separated from him by a window. He follows the news and was especially intrigued by the Lewinsky scandal. ("If he had an Italian last name, they would've executed him," Gotti said of the President.) Back in New York, according to the FBI, Junior tried to develop new lines of business in credit-card and telephone-card fraud, and he extorted payoffs from an upscale Manhattan strip club. But underlings and rivals never showed him the respect his father had earned the hard way. "They are like night and day," says a habitué of the storefront Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, from which the senior Gotti ran the Gambino's daily operations. "Junior doesn't have the same charisma. His father wore $2,000 Brioni suits. Junior wears $200 jogging suits."

As patriarch of the Gotti clan, Junior had to face nonprofessional responsibilities as well. When his sister Victoria was preparing for heart surgery last year, according to family friend Tula Rios, Junior accompanied her to Boston to visit doctors and sat by her bed at a hospital on Long Island—not far from the six-acre estate with horse stables where Victoria lives with her husband, Carmine Agnello, 38, who owns an auto salvage business (he is a reputed Gambino associate) and their three young sons. "I'm not trying to paint [Junior] as a saint," says Rios, "but you've never seen a brother and sister as close as they are."

Junior's troubles escalated early last year after police found $358,000 in cash, illegal handguns and a list of Gambino members and associates during raids on his Queens office and the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. The evidence led to his guilty plea last April; he has been given until Oct. 18 to settle his affairs. In order to raise money to pay a $1 million penalty that is part of his sentence, he hopes to sell his 14-room Mill Neck, N.Y., mansion and move Kim, now pregnant again, and their kids—Frank, 9, Nicolette, 7, John, 6, and Peter, 4—into a more modest home.

As for his other family, law enforcement officers speculate that Junior's uncle Peter Gotti will now run the Gambino organization. "I'm surrounded by 12 guys, and one is more incompetent than the other," Junior railed at associates during a meeting in the summer of 1996. "What are you guys going to do when I go to jail? Who's going to feed your families?" That, of course, is the question they must be settling even now.

Patrick Rogers
Julia Campbell and Ivory Clinton II in New York City

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  • Ivory Clinton II.