Cape Town - A "spiritual medicine guide" told the Western Cape High Court that Guatemalan murder accused Diego Novella was able to confront childhood issues after taking ibogaine, a natural occurring psychoactive substance found in plants.
Rhoda Slabbert-Barron, the owner of a spiritual retreat in the Magaliesberg, told the court that Novella came for a seven-day stay in April, 2015.
He was given colon cleanses, sauna purification, and on the fifth night of his stay ibogaine was administered. Novella's search for spiritual enlightenment was on Wednesday brought to the fore on the third day of the trial against him.
He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder for allegedly killing his girlfriend, American marketing executive Gabriela Kabrins Alban, on July 29, 2015. The 39-year-old's body was discovered by hotel staff in the room the couple was sharing at the Camps Bay Retreat Boutique Hotel.
She had suffered blunt force trauma and had been strangled. Novella was arrested later that day. He was sent for psychiatric evaluation, and a panel found he had diminished responsibility because of drug intoxication.
He was, however, found fit to stand trial.
On the day of Alban's death, Novella called Slabbert-Barron several times. She testified that she missed the first two calls, but took his third call which was at about lunchtime.
"Novella didn't sound himself over the phone. He sounded very strange. I asked him if he was okay and he replied yes. On previous occasions, he would have excitement or laughter. He sounded weird this time, and distant. And the words were very drawn out. It didn't sound like him at all."
She told the court that she asked after Alban, who was due to accompany Novella to the retreat several days later where she would receive treatment for her lyme disease.
She had earlier testified that ibogaine helped treat people suffering from cancer and she was confident it would help Alban.
Novella told her that Alban had not been eating fruit and vegetables as she was supposed to in the run-up to the treatment, but had instead been drinking coca-cola and eating MSG.
Slabbert-Barron told the court Novella wanted to arrive the following day, but she couldn't accommodate him and they agreed he would arrive that Friday. "There was a disappointed response, there was an urgency to his voice. It sounded like he was in a hurry to get Gabriela to us."
The following day, she found out that Alban had been murdered and Novella arrested.
Four to six weeks later, Novella called again. This time, from a prison public telephone and Slabbert-Barron was able to ask him what had happened: "He said that when he was consciously aware of his surroundings, he was in red clothes, and he said he had had a swim in the ocean in his clothes, and then he had bought champagne for people in a hotel bar. He was apparently asked to leave the hotel. He sounded very emotional and very confused."
She said she would not describe Novella as aggressive or violent, but rather a humble, peace-loving, kind and generous man. She further told the court that when he took ibogaine at her retreat, he had entered into a dream-like state for about eight hours. This was normal for people taking the substance.
"It totally relaxes the body, the person goes into an anaesthetic feeling, and can't move around. They are laid down on a bed and then experience dreams from their life, and will visit those places before it (ibogaine) removes it from you."
Ibogaine was changed to a schedule six drug in 2016 and now needs a prescription before it can be taken. During cross examination by defence lawyer, William Booth, she insisted the drug "frees people" and "heals the demons inside", defending it against allegations that it has caused deaths in the past.
She said only "disrepect for this incredible medicine" and people taking too much could explain the past fatalities.
Both her and her partner were not doctors, and did not perform clinical examinations, however she said people with heart problems were not given ibogaine. She said ibogaine removed negative emotions from those who took it and this could induce nausea and vomiting.
Judge Vincent Saldanha was sceptical about her qualifications to deal with the potentially negative psychological and physical fallout from taking ibogaine.
But she was adamant that it was not difficult to assist someone through their spiritual journey and she was there to make the "process easy and gentle".
During the tea adjournment, Slabbert-Barron winked at Novella and bowed to him as she left the courtroom, placing her hands together in a prayer-like gesture. He mimicked her gesture in return.
African News Agency