A teenage gang member used a Craigslist ad to lure a potential robbery victim, whom he later murdered, a prosecutor alleged Monday, but a defense lawyer countered his client was falsely accused of the crime by a co-defendant.
Ryan Roth, 19, is charged with murder in the Oct. 19, 2013, death of 41- year-old Rene Balbuena and attempting to murder Balbuena’s son, Rene Steven. He is also facing a gang allegation.
Co-defendant Markell Thomas, 20, was also charged with murder and attempted murder and was eligible for the death penalty because the killing was allegedly committed during a robbery. However, Thomas agreed to testify against Roth in exchange for a sentence of 26 years in prison, according to Deputy District Attorney Arthur Leahy.
Roth, the alleged gunman, was 17 at the time of the shooting. As a minor, he cannot be sentenced to death.
Leahy said the case was “about the execution of Rene Balbuena” by two gang members who “had this scheme going.”
He accused Roth and Thomas of three separate armed robberies between August and October of 2013 in which they listed cell phones for sale on Craigslist and then robbed their victims in a pattern of “escalating violence.”
“They set up a trap, nothing more, nothing less, for these unsuspecting victims,” Leahy told the jury panel.
When Balbuena arrived at a meeting spot near 92nd Street and Gramercy Place, Thomas got into back seat of the SUV, where Balbuena’s son was sitting, and “pointed a gun at Rene Steven and Mr. Balbuena and they saw each other eye to eye.”
Roth yelled, “Get out,” though whether he was talking to Thomas or Balbuena wasn’t clear, Leahy said.
When Balbuena moved toward his driver’s side door, Roth shot him three times in his neck and chest, according to the prosecutor.
Another bullet hit Rene Steven, who police said was treated for a graze wound.
Defense attorney Anthony Willoughby told the jury panel of seven women and five men that “this is a tragedy,” but that Thomas posted the Craiglist ads “by himself, solo” and carried out other robberies in which Roth wasn’t involved.
“My client has never been in any gang database,” Willoughby told jurors.
Roth was “a kid who went to school with Markell Thomas” and, unlike gang members, attended class and was “gainfully employed,” the defense attorney said.
Willoughby said that Thomas first told law enforcement that he had met up with Roth about 3 p.m. on the day of Balbuena’s murder, until Deputy District Attorney Bobby Zoumberakis told Thomas that Roth didn’t get off work at McDonald’s until 5:30 p.m. that day.
“Markell Thomas … continues to deflect the blame,” Willoughby said, telling jurors, “It would be an even greater tragedy to convict the wrong person of this crime.”
Leahy said forensic evidence and other witnesses would support Thomas’s account.
“I’m confident that at the conclusion of this trial that you will find this defendant … guilty of the murder of Rene Balbuena,” Leahy said.
Two sisters testified this morning, identifying Roth as one of two men who robbed them of their phones and $300 in cash on Aug. 23, 2013, after they responded to a Craigslist ad offering a cell phone for sale. The pair testified that they recognized Roth’s photo in a police array three months later because of his distinctively “sleepy look,” although both failed to recall other details.
During cross-examination, Willoughby noted that news outlets had published pictures of the suspects after Balbuena’s killing, but both sisters said they had avoided news reports of the crime.
Other robbery victims were expected to testify this afternoon.
Police said Roth had a gun in his backpack when he was arrested, but that it was not the murder weapon.
There were seven similar Craigslist robberies between Aug. 2 and Oct. 7 in the Baldwin Hills area, all involving a pair of suspects whose descriptions matched Roth and Thomas, according to police. No one was injured in the other robberies.
Both Roth and Thomas are being held without bail.
— City News Service