Guatemalan murder accused Diego Novella File picture: Jason Boud/ANA Pictures
Cape Town – The owner of a spiritual retreat in the Magaliesberg was the first witness to take the stand in the trial against Gautemalan murder accused Diego Novella.

Rhoda Slabbert-Barron said when she first met Novella she thought he was an “amazing man”, full of love and humility.

Clearly sympathetic to Novella, she winked at him and bowed to him as she left court during the tea adjournment, holding her hands together in a prayer-like gesture.

Novella visited her spiritual retreat in April 2015 for seven days in which he received colon cleansing, sauna purification and was administered ibogaine.

Slabbert-Barron described ibogaine as an extract from root bark which “clears neural pathways” and assists with depression.

She said it “takes one through a sacred, spiritual journey” and is given to clients on the fifth night of their stay. She said ibogaine was classed a schedule six drug last year “unfortunately”. This means you can only get it with a prescription.

Slabbert-Barron told the Western Cape High Court that Novella started talking about his American marketing executive girlfriend Gabriela Kabrins Alban on the second day of his arrival.

Gabriela Alban's body was found in a Camps Bay hotel. Picture Facebook

He wanted her to visit the retreat with him and believed they would be able help her alleviate the symptoms of her lyme disease.

But shortly before she was due to visit the retreat she was murdered at the Camps Bay Retreat Boutique Hotel on July 29, 2015. She suffered blunt force trauma to her face and had been strangled. Hotel staff discovered her in the room she was sharing with Novella, and he was arrested later that day.

On Monday, Novella pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder. His defence is set to argue diminished responsibility because of drug intoxication.

Slabbert-Barron said Novella was very concerned about his girlfriend and had told her that she was very uncomfortable. “She was in severe pain, had joint pain, inflammation and she was basically living on pharmaceutical drugs to assist her through the days.”

She told the court that Diego was going through some “emotional releases”. She said: “When the body releases toxins you also release emotional toxins from the mind.”

She said these were childhood issues and she believed it was one of the first times he had let go of his emotions.

In early July, she met Novella at another three-day spiritual retreat in the Western Cape called Bhodi Khaya. Alban arrived in South Africa on the third night. “They were like children on the phone, they were so excited and happy.”

She spoke to Alban herself who told told her she was excited about the cleanse and felt “lucky” as it was her grandfather’s birthday that day.

Dates were finalised for her trip to the Magaliesberg retreat just days before her murder.

Slabbert Barron told the court: “She was really looking forward to it.”