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Arraignment postponed in cell-phone murder

Duo suspected in seven Baldwin Hills robberies

City News Service | 10/31/2013, midnight

Arraignment for a teen charged in the murder of a man who came to South Los Angeles to purchase a cell phone was postponed until Nov. 12. Markell Thomas, 18, appeared in court in downtown on Monday and his accomplice, 17-year-old Ryan Roth, was expected to make a court appearance Tuesday, but his arraignment will also likely be postponed.

The two reputed gang members were charged Monday with murder and other counts 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.

Roth and Thomas were 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 circumstances 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 Thomas entered the rear passenger seat of the Balbuenas’ vehicle and pointed a gun at the 15-year-old. Both suspects demanded property. The elder Balbuena exited the car at one point and suspect Roth shot him. The 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. Thomas was arrested Thursday, while Roth was arrested Friday in Inglewood near his home. 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 have been 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 phone.

“During those robberies, no one was injured,” Barling said.

Balbuena’s daughter, Sandra, thanked police for their efforts tracking down the suspects.

“I’m very proud to live in a city that I know that I’m safe, and that no one else is going to get harmed,” she said. “I know nothing’s going to bring back my dad, but I know that they worked real hard, I know they didn’t sleep, I know they didn’t eat . . . .

“I have no words to thank them,” she said. “. . . My dad was my best friend. He was everything to me.”

She also thanked the community for the support the family has received.

“My brother’s been through a lot too. I’m just very thankful that I still have him,” she said.