LOS ANGELES, Calif., - Two reputed gang members pleaded not guilty today to murder and other charges stemming from the shooting death of a man who went to South Los Angeles with his 15-year-old son to purchase a cell phone
advertised on Craigslist.
Ryan Roth, 17, and Markell Thomas, 18, were scheduled to return to court Dec. 17, when a date is expected to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for them to stand trial.
Roth and Thomas are both charged with murder and attempted murder, along with two counts each of second-degree robbery, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation that the killing was committed during a robbery, making it a capital offense.
The allegation applies to both defendants but because Roth -- identified in the complaint as the shooter -- is a minor, he is not eligible for the death penalty, according to prosecutors. Thomas, who was born about six months earlier than Roth, could face the death penalty, but prosecutors will decide later whether to pursue capital punishment.
The two are accused in the death of Rene Balbuena, 41, who was killed when he and his son responded to a Craigslist ad about 7:40 p.m. Oct. 19 at 92nd Street and Gramercy Place.
Los Angeles Police Department Detective Chris Barling said Balbuena made contact with the suspects via text message, and alerted them that they had arrived at the planned meeting spot.
“A few minutes later, two suspects approached from the rear,” Barling said. “One of them got in the car, one of them stayed out of the car and they began to rob the Balbuenas. Suspect Markell Thomas entered the rear passenger seat of the Balbuenas’ vehicle and pointed a gun at the 15-year-old. Both suspects demanded property. Mr. Balbuena exited the car at one point and suspect Ryan Roth shot Mr. Balbuena. His son was also struck by gunfire. Both
suspects then fled the scene on foot.”
Balbuena, shot multiple times in the upper body, was declared dead at California Hospital, police said. His 15-year-old son was treated for a graze wound.
Barling would not provide specifics about what led detectives to the suspects. Barling said Roth had a gun in his backpack when he was arrested, but it was not the murder weapon, which still has not been found.
He said there were seven similar Craigslist robberies between Aug. 2 and Oct. 7 in the Baldwin Hills area, all involving a pair of suspects -- matching the description of Roth and Thomas -- who posted an ad for a cell
“During those robberies, no one was injured,” Barling said.