RIDGE MANOR — His 85-year-old mother was on the phone, and she told him someone was in the house. She told him she didn't know who it was. And she told him she was scared.
Never one to run from a fight, Martin Ryals raced over to his mother's house Monday morning, told her to wait outside and went into a bedroom to get a shotgun and a handful of shells.
Ryals then slipped into his mother's bedroom to find a man standing on a ladder, tinkering around inside the ceiling of the closet.
Ryals thought he was confronting a robber. Jonathan Rossi, the man on the ladder, thought he was about to be shot to death.
"I was scared for my life," said Rossi, an air-conditioning technician from Citrus County. "I didn't want to die. I'm not ready, but that one idiot could've done it."
The entire episode ended with Rossi being led out of the house at gunpoint, Ryals firing what he called "a warning shot" and Hernando deputies arriving at the house in the 5100 block of Cyril Drive soon after to take Ryals into custody.
Ryals, 58, faces a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without the intent to kill. He was released from the Hernando County Jail on Monday afternoon after posting $7,000 bail.
Back at his mother's home Tuesday afternoon, Ryals described it all as "one big misunderstanding."
"I naturally assumed that I had walked in on a home invasion," Ryals said. "And I would lay my life on the line to defend my mother."
According to the Hernando Sheriff's Office, Rossi went to the home of Norma Ryals on Monday morning to service her air-conditioning unit. While Rossi was inside the home, Norma Ryals called her son to let him know that someone was at the home.
Once Martin Ryals arrived, the sheriff's report says, he confronted Rossi with a shotgun and threatened to hurt him. The report says that Ryals then escorted Rossi out of the home and fired a shot into the air, sending Rossi fleeing for safety.
Deputies were called to the home, where Ryals admitted confronting Rossi with a shotgun and discharging the weapon into the air. Ryals was arrested and taken to the county jail.
Ryals said Tuesday that he was only protecting his mother, who suffers from memory loss and has been swindled at least a couple of times by scam artists in the past.
"At first, I thought the guy was a robber," Ryals said. "Then I thought he was a crook."
Ryals said Rossi had no business at his mother's home because the family already has an agreement with another air-conditioning company to service the unit. Norma Ryals also said that she wouldn't sign a contract with a company or allow anyone else inside the house without one of her children there.
"I tell everyone to handle things through Martin," she said. "I don't want to be here by myself."
But Cool-Aid, the Inverness-based company for which Rossi works, said it did have a contract with Norma Ryals to come out for two maintenance checks a year. The company's office manager said this was the company's first visit to the home since Ryals signed a new contract in July 2009.
"We had set an appointment with her," said Danielle Richards. "We've never heard of anything like this before."
Rossi said Tuesday that he was still shaken by his run-in with Martin Ryals. He remains convinced that Ryals wanted to kill him.
"The only reason he didn't shoot me was that I was calm and collected the whole time," Rossi said. "I looked him dead in the eye and was like, 'Come on, man, don't do it.' "
Ryals said he didn't need to shoot Rossi. If he had to, Ryals explained, he could have easily taken him out with his fists.
Wearing a camouflage T-shirt like the one in his mug shot from the day before, Ryals explained that he comes from a long line of fighters. A former Marine who served in Vietnam, Ryals said his father fought in World War II, his grandfather served in World War I and his great-grandfather was a veteran of the Civil War.
Martin Ryals also boasted of being an amateur boxing champion, a longtime professional fighter and, according to him, an undefeated street brawler. He brought out newspaper clippings and boxing trophies to back up his claims.
Given that background, Ryals said, the confrontation really could have turned ugly. He just wanted to protect his mother.
"He wasn't supposed to be there, sir," Ryals said. "And I just wanted to get him out of the house."
Times photographer Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.