Crime & Justice

2 arrests made in Los Angeles Craigslist killing

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Los Angeles police have arrested two men they believe lured a man to his death with a Craigslist ad — gunning him down in front of his son.

Police arrested Markell Thomas, 18, at his home Thursday. They also arrested a second suspect, a 17-year-old on Friday. The two have been charged with murder, attempted murder, robbery with special circumstances and gang allegations, according to detectives.

“I think there were individuals who felt that this was a way to make easy cash,” said LAPD Detective Chris Barling.

Authorities say 41-year-old Rene Balbuena and his 15-year-old son were ambushed around 7:30 p.m. October 19 near the intersection of S. Gramercy Place and S. Western Ave. in South LA. The two victims were responding to a Craigslist ad advertising a Samsung cell phone for $300.

When the victims texted one of the suspects to say they arrived at the agreed location, police say one of the men got into the backseat of the car and pointed a gun at the 15-year-old son. The other man stood outside the car and demanded money. When Balbuena got out of the car, one of the robbers fired, killing him and grazing the teenager.

The robbers fled the scene with no money.

As detectives searched for the suspects, they found there were seven other robberies from Aug. 2 to Oct. 7 in the Baldwin Hills area; all involved the same type of Craigslist ad, which advertised a cell phone on sale for about $250 to $350.

“Then the buyers were robbed by suspects with similar descriptions and also with handguns,” Barling said. “During those robberies, no one was injured.” All ads asked for buyers to meet them in residential areas.

Barling said he believes Thomas was the one who allegedly placed the ads on Craigslist and, at times, enlisted the help of other suspects to rob the victims. Barling didn’t comment on why the Oct. 19 robbery ended fatally, unlike the other alleged robberies.

The 41-year-old victim is believed to have been shot several times.

“He was my best friend,” said 19-year-old Sandra Balbuena remembering her slain father. “I trusted him with everything.”

Sandra Balbuena said she and her brother were always searching Craigslist for deals on cell phones because they both wanted one. The 15-year-old son had asked for a cell phone for his birthday. Balbuena said her father finally decided to take the teen to buy the advertised cell phone one night after work.

Balbuena thanked detectives for arresting the two suspects and protecting other unsuspecting buyers.

“Nothing is going to bring my dad back,” she said. “But it’s going to help a lot of people and I’m grateful for that."

This story has been updated.