Two Montgomery County policemen shot and killed a 32-year-old Wheaton man in the front yard of his home yesterday after the man allegedly pointed a rifle at the officers.

Police officials said the victim, Robert V. Williams of 3415 Embroy St., died at Suburban Hospital at 4:15 p.m., about 45 minutes after he was struck in the chest by three shotgun blasts fired by the officers.

Officials said the officers had been called to the neighborhood by a telephoned report of a man with a gun at the house next to Williams' -- a report they said they later learned had been made by Williams himself.

As two officers arrived at 3417 Embry St. to investigate, officials said, Williams stepped from his front porch carrying a rifle and ordered them to throw down their guns.

As the officers leaped to cover, officials said, Williams turned the rifle on two other officers armed with shotguns, who were just arriving at the scene. oBoth of these officers fired their weapons, fatally wounding Williams.

Police officials refused last night to provide further details of the incident and refused to identify any of the policemen involved, saying that the incident was under investigation.

Police declined to speculate on what might have triggered the incident, but Williams' father-in-law, Philip Manson, told a reporter last night that Williams had been despondent about the death of a relative and might have set up the confrontation as a means of "asking for help."

manson said the rifle, a .22-calibre bolt-action model Williams acquired about six years ago, was not loaded and that his son-in-law "never intended to harm anyone." Investigators would not say whether they found the weapon loaded or not.

"When I was at the police station, they said he was asking to commit suicide," Manson said. "I told them it wasn't their job to act as assassins."

Manson said that before the shooting Williams had attended the funeral of a nephew with whom he had been close and afterwards came home "angry" and began "throwing things around."

Williams, an independent newspaper distributor for The Washington Post, left the funeral early to rest for his late-night work, Manson said.

When Williams' wife Priscilla arrived home with the couple's three young children, Manson said, she found him upset and smashing things. Mrs. Williams took the children, aged 6, 4 and 16 months, to her mother-in-law's home.

A short time later, Sandy Dae, 13, a next-door neighbor, overhead Williams telling police on the phone that there was a gunman in her own home.

"Our door was open and his window was open so I could just hear it," Dae said last night. "He just said there was somebody over here with a gun."

"I was curious why he said our address," said Dae. "I didn't think [he] was serious or anything."

Dae said she left the house to visit a friend before police arrived on the scene.

Manson said he did not witness the shooting, but he nevertheless disputed the police account.

Manson said he was told by neighborhood residents who were at the scene that the first two policemen had not been able to get to cover, but had dropped their service revolvers and were lying on the ground before the second pair arrived.

"My son-in-law told them to lay down or he'd waste them or something like that. They did and laid their weapons on the ground."

Williams had the rifle trained on the policemen when the second pair of officers arrived, Manson said he was told. These two at first approached with revolvers drawn, according to Manson, but then returned to their cruiser, took shotguns from the trunk and fired "without ever asking (Williams) to put down the gun."

Police officials refused last night to comment on Manson's description of the incident.

Williams had been a Washington Post distributor for about five years. He directed a circulation route of 2,000 families in the Wheaton area, and had previously managed a route in Takoma Park.