Diego Novella at the Western Cape High Court. File picture: Cindy Waxa /African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town - The family of convicted murderer Diego Dougherty Novella says he is not the "devil" or the "playboy billionaire the media has made him out to be".

Speaking to the African News Agency (ANA) from Guatemala City, his brother Lucas reiterated what his twin sister Lucila testified in mitigation of sentence last week: "The person who did that to Gabriela was not the Diego we have known our whole lives."

Novella has been convicted of murdering his American marketing executive girlfriend Gabriela Kabrins Alban in the hotel room they were sharing at a Camps Bay luxury boutique hotel on July 29, 2015.

He pleaded not guilty and claimed he had been in an abnormal mental state after taking psychoactive substances which included sceletium and cannabis oil, and that these had had a disinhibiting effect on him. 

But Judge Vincent Saldanha rejected his version and found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and ruled that he was able to distinguish between right and wrong.

"In my view, he knew exactly what he was doing at the time and it was a clear indication on his part of the intent to murder the deceased," he said.

Alban was strangled and suffered blunt force trauma. During the trial, a police officer who interviewed Novella on the day of his arrest, told the Western Cape High Court that in 30 years of service he had never seen a crime scene like the one in Room 14 at the Camps Bay Retreat.

Warrant Officer Stephen Fourie testified that the crime scene had been unlike anything he had ever seen before. "It is not the norm to find a body like that," he told the court.

Alban's face was covered in chips, as well as faeces, and a curling iron placed between her legs. A note had been left on her body with the word "cerote" scrawled on it - a Spanish word meaning "piece of s***".

Novella claimed that his mind had been “hijacked” and that he thought he had been wrestling with a “demonic entity”, a version Judge Saldanha rejected in his June judgment.

The couple had been on holiday in South Africa to seek treatment for Alban in her battle with Lyme disease, caused by a bacteria that is transmitted to humans through a bite from an infected tick.

Novella's sister Susan told ANA that Novella believed the medication Alban was on was bad for her, and he had wanted to seek alternative treatments in South Africa. 

She said the couple had a  "toxic relationship", but was adamant that Novella was not a violent man: Her brother Lucas added: "Diego was not himself. He was the sweetest, most caring brother I could ask for. He was a sweet man, he had problems, but was never ever violent. What triggered what happened, only Diego and Gabriela know." 

Alban dated Novella for a short time while she was at university and reconnected with him when he contacted her on social media after her divorce from her paediatrician husband.

Novella's family describes his childhood as a happy and stable one. His sister Susan denied that the family owns a cement monopoly in Guatemala and has rejected media reports that her brother was a billionaire playboy. "The media has mentioned that we own a Central American cement monopoly. That is not the case, we are not the owners. We have interests in a few countries, mainly Guatemala. His proportion of wealth has been taken way out of proportion. We are part of a big group of shareholders. This is a big family." 

She said Novella, who has never had formal employment, inherited money from their mother. 

Furthermore, the tattoo of the number 13 on his neck had fuelled the negative image of her brother, but she insisted it had nothing to do with MS-13, the infamous and violent Mara Salvatrucha international gang. "It has a lot more humble and simple meaning... It means the 13th apostle and that was Jesus. He was 36 years old when he got it."

She said she believes that what he ingested before the murder had been a "Molotov cocktail".

"This is a tragedy of loss wherever you see it. It has been horrible for us. All the lies in the media, we have been publicly scorned as a family. Our security has been threatened. Both of my children have been bullied at school, they are innocent bystanders. We can relate to the pain of Gaby's family, we have also been suffering. What my children have had to endure has been horrible. It's a horrible tragedy for everybody involved."

Last week, Alban's mother Doris Weitz testified in aggravation of sentence and told the court that her only child's killer had sentenced her to a "life without parole".

"When I close my eyes the movie of what he did to my daughter comes to me," a distraught Weitz told the court.

She said she suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, takes antidepressants and cries herself to sleep every night.

“It was a murder so cruel, I could not hold or comfort her while she was suffering and dying. She was butchered, I can’t say some of the other things done to her. I could not say goodbye to her.”

Weitz and her husband, Alban's stepfather Alexander Williams, have spent half a million Rand and made 11 trips to Cape Town from America to attend the trial.

Alban's father, Howdy Kabrins, and stepmother Linda, have spent months at time living in Cape Town so they too could attend court proceedings. 

Kabrins is expected to testify in aggravation of sentence next week.

African News Agency (ANA)