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Two charged with murder in death of man who answered Craigslist ad

Two suspected gang members were charged Monday with murder in connection with the slaying of a father who was responding to a Craigslist ad for a cellphone for his son, Los Angeles law enforcement authorities said.

Ryan Roth, 17, and Markell Thomas, 18, were arrested late last week after detectives connected the killing with similar robberies in the area, Police Det. Chris Barling said.

In addition to the murder charges, they were both charged with attempted murder, along with two counts each of second-degree robbery with gang enhancements, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Roth, a minor, was charged as an adult.

Rene Balbuena, 41Police said Thomas and Roth communicated with Rene Balbuena, 41, and his 15-year-old son via text message Oct. 19 about buying a $300 Samsung Galaxy cellphone. When Balbuena arrived in the 9200 block of South Gramercy Place about 7:30 p.m. with his son to buy the phone, the father and son were ambushed, Barling said.

Thomas and Roth demanded money from Balbuena, police said, and Thomas jumped into the back seat of the car and pointed a gun at the teenager. Balbuena then got out of the car and was shot by Roth, Barling said. Balbuena's son was hit by gunfire.

Roth and Thomas then fled on foot without any property, leaving the father and son wounded. Balbuena was taken to a hospital, where he died. His son was treated and released.

Initially, detectives said they didn't have much to go on.

"In a case like this, it's stranger-on-stranger, so it makes it more difficult, as opposed to cases where the victim knows the suspect," Barling said.

But investigators discovered similarities to other robberies in the area. The robberies — in which no one was shot — involved Craigslist ads and the same type of cellphone.

"The basic descriptions of the suspects were all the same," Barling said.

Now investigators believe Thomas could be involved in as many as seven robberies in the Baldwin Hills area from Aug. 2 to Oct. 7.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Balbuena's 19-year-old daughter, Sandra Balbuena, thanked police for their efforts. She said she and her family were still in shock over the loss of her father, who was an avid runner.

"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."

Sandra Balbuena said her main priority now is her brother, who is recovering from the shooting.

"He'll be stable for a second and then he'll be really upset," she said. "My brother's been through a lot too. I'm just very thankful that I still have him."

Thomas is due in court for an arraignment Nov. 13. Roth is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Top photo: At a news conference to announce two arrests in the shooting death of Rene Balbuena, his wife, Sandra Balbuena, left, holds their 19-year-old daughter, also named Sandra. Credit: Christina House / For The Times. Bottom photo: Rene Balbuena, 41. Credit: KTLA.

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