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Fire, arson investigation follow mother-son feud

It began as an argument between mother and son.

But everything turned ugly _ and nearly tragic _ with seven little words.

"One of us is gonna die tonight."

That, police and fire investigators say, is what Jerry Wayne Ryals told his mother Thursday afternoon _ and what may have led to the torching of their Lithia home later that night.

Ryals, 47, was charged Friday with assaulting a person over the age of 65 after being found hiding near the burned home. Neither Ryals, nor his mother, Frances Ryals, was injured in the fire.

Shortly after viewing her destroyed home for the first time Friday afternoon, Frances Ryals dabbed away tears with a tissue as family members combed through the wreckage.

She said she thinks her son may have set the fire, but she declined to comment further.

"I don't think anyone feels like talking right now," she said.

According to an arrest affidavit, the Ryals' dispute began Thursday afternoon at their home, a single-wide mobile home at 7405 Lithia-Pinecrest Road.

As tempers flared, Jerry menaced Frances with a closed fist, then said, "One of us is gonna die tonight." Frances fled the home to stay with a relative.

Later that night, Hillsborough Fire Rescue responded to a neighbor's call to find the mobile home, which is on an overgrown dirt road, engulfed in flames.

"Out in that area, it's rural, which means there's no hydrants," said Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.

"It was completely involved and almost destroyed by the time they got there," Yeakley said.

Yeakley said an arson investigation could wrap up by Monday, and more charges may follow.

_ Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or