Directly at odds with the government's account of Ruby Ridge, a former top Justice Department official said yesterday he recalls being told by the FBI early in the 1992 siege that the 14-year-old son of white separatist Randy Weaver had been shot.

The official revealed that on the first Saturday of the standoff he was told that Vicki Weaver had been overheard "wailing" about the shooting of her son.

Vicki Weaver herself was shot and killed by an FBI sniper later the same day in a chaotic showdown that has prompted Senate hearings.

The government has said it did not learn that Sammy Weaver had been shot during a gun battle with U.S. deputy marshals until his body was found in a shed on Sunday evening, Aug. 23, 1992, the third day of the standoff in Idaho.

But a former associate deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Howard, said in an interview he believes he learned of the boy's shooting 36 hours earlier -- during a conversation with top FBI officials.

In fact, Justice Department phone logs show that top officials of the Bush Justice Department had at least 20 contacts concerning Ruby Ridge in the 24 hours before Vicki Weaver was shot. Two calls involved then-Attorney General William P. Barr.

The largest number involved Howard, the principal deputy to then-Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger.

The government's official account, laid out in a Justice Department task force report last year, is that "there is no evidence that law enforcement personnel knew of Sammy Weaver's death" before they found his body Sunday night.

But Howard said: "I know sooner than that I had been told in some conversation that the mother was wailing . . . about how they had murdered her son." Howard said he reported the information later that morning to Barr's chief of staff.

He added: "My best recollection is I heard about the shooting of the boy Saturday morning. With that, it is possible I learned about that shooting later, although that is not my recollection."

Howard said he believed the call came from either Larry Potts, the now-suspended FBI deputy director, or Potts's top aide, Danny O. Coulson.

Both Potts and Coulson testified during the Senate hearings yesterday.

The phone logs, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, state that Potts called Howard at 8:10 a.m. that Saturday morning, Aug. 22.

"So 8:10 would have probably either been Potts or Coulson and what they would have informed me was their belief {that} one of the Weaver family members or one of the people from the cabin had been hit because the mother was wailing about it," Howard said. Howard is now attorney general of the state of New Hampshire. His comments are likely to rekindle a controversy begun last week during Senate hearings when former U.S. Marshals Service director Henry Hudson was confronted with an FBI interview in which he was quoted as saying that he too had been told Sammy had been wounded early on.

The FBI interview quoted Hudson as saying that on the day of the initial shootout between marshals and the Weavers it was "believed that Sammy had been wounded . . . that the younger Weaver had been shot." But when senators confronted him last week, Hudson denied knowing about the boy, saying he was "equally perplexed" by the FBI interview's reference.

"I did not know Sammy Weaver had been shot until after his body was recovered in the birthing shed," Hudson testified.

Hudson said he thought at the time that Kevin Harris, a 24-year-old Weaver family friend, had been shot and "I don't know whether I misspoke during that interview or that something was lost in translation."