Novella sentencing ends agonising ordeal for victim’s parents

Diego Novella in the dock at the high court in Cape Town.
Diego Novella in the dock at the high court in Cape Town.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

It has been a long and hard road for two sets of parents since the murder of their daughter Gabriella Alban in a Camps Bay hotel in 2015.

There is no clock that can be turned back‚ no hand that can erase the heartbreak of more than 120 days in a courtroom hearing how she died.

But on Thursday‚ when Judge Vincent Saldanha passes sentence on her boyfriend and killer‚ Diego Novella‚ a new chapter of healing can perhaps begin.

Alban was a 39-year-old executive who travelled to South Africa from the US in 2015 to meet her boyfriend‚ the son of a Guatemalan multi-millionaire. As a trust fund kid who had never worked‚ he had lived a life of drugs‚ parties and endless search for a purpose.

Shortly afterwards‚ Alban was found murdered in the boutique hotel room in Camps Bay with faeces and chips on her face‚ and a note on paper in lipstick saying “cerote” (“piece of s**t” in Spanish).

Beside her body lay a curling iron with which she had been sexually assaulted.

Last month‚ Alban’s mother Doris Weitz testified at the high court in Cape Town‚ taking Saldanha through the milestones of her daughter’s life before her identity in the public eye changed to that of “murder victim”.

In aggravation of sentence‚ she told the judge: “Diego Novella has given me a life sentence without parole. There will be no recovery from this. He has given Gabi’s father‚ Howdy‚ a life sentence without parole. All I can say is I hope he will not be outside of prison while I am still alive.”

She said the way he had butchered her daughter “reflected extraordinary rage”‚ and as a mother she now lives with post-traumatic stress disorder‚ sees a psychiatrist weekly‚ takes medication and cries herself to sleep.

“When I close my eyes‚ the movie of what he did to her comes into my mind. Sometimes I cannot get out of bed — it is a super effort for me to stay alive. There will never be closure and I will live with this grief every day for the rest of my life.”

She said her daughter’s last words to her were: “Mummy‚ I love you.”

Now‚ said Weitz‚ “nobody will ever call me mummy again.”

She described her daughter’s life from early childhood and the bicultural family into which she was born. “My own parents were European refugees who had fled anti-semitism.

“I was born and raised in Mexico City and moved to the United States in 1974. My entire family still lived in Mexico at that time‚ and the first time Gabi visited Mexico she was five months old.”

Her daughter’s life was one of family kinship and a close connection to the US and Mexico‚ where her cousins were more like siblings to her.

Although her parents divorced when she was three‚ they have remained a close-knit family which includes both parents’ second spouses. During the trial‚ the four parents have been together in court‚ providing emotional support to one another in a city that was once foreign to them.

“Gabi was an easy child to raise‚” said her mother‚ “she was full of life‚ had a great sense of humour even from when she was little‚ and had a large circle of friends.”

The two spoke on the phone every day‚ and were inseparable. But then‚ on July 29 2015‚ she received a phone call from the US consulate.

The man on the other end of the line told her: “This is going to be the worst day of your life.”

Since then‚ Weitz has spent over half a million rand travelling to and from South Africa to seek justice for her daughter.

Alban’s father‚ Howdy Kabrins‚ has made the same journey more times than he can count. They‚ and their partners‚ have had to control their emotions after so many days of seeing Alban’s killer in court.

For his part‚ Novella has mostly appeared in the dock wearing a leather jacket with his “good luck charm” — a badly sketched tattoo on his neck — revealed‚ staring down with his empty ink-black eyes while his lawyer‚ William Booth‚ has done all he can to spare him a lifetime in jail.

For Kabrins‚ Thursday’s sentencing will usher in a new era but it will not erase the memory he has to live with.

Reflecting on the first time he met Novella‚ he said his gut instincts were correct. Alban introduced them after dating the Guatemalan for six weeks‚ and shortly afterwards she ended the relationship because of Novella’s drug habits.

“He was aggressive‚” said Kabrins‚ adding that even Novella’s driving was full of fury and made him feel unsafe.

But‚ acknowledging that his “baby girl” was now an adult‚ he kept the criticism to himself.

Alban’s death came after years of battling Lyme Disease‚ a bacterial infection so debilitating that she became reliant on the love and care of others after bouts of insurmountable exhaustion.

Kabrins suspects his daughter’s desperate desire to have children clouded her judgement about Novella.

When she arrived in Cape Town to meet him in 2015‚ she couldn’t find him and he didn’t call her. When he finally arrived at her hotel‚ he bizarrely told the receptionist: “I am here to see my mother.”

A few days later‚ he was found wandering around the hotel in a daze‚ and that is when news broke that Alban had been found dead in their room.

“She was my baby girl. She will always be my baby girl. I just want to go back in time and protect her. This has torn me in half‚” said Kabrins.

Weitz highlighted the many layers of this tragedy. “It is not only the murder. It is the way in which she was murdered. It is a tragedy when any parent loses a child but a murder is worse especially when it is so far away and in such a cruel manner‚” she said.

“She was butchered. A more normal death would have been different‚ and I cannot make sense of it.”

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