A Los Angeles woman who once ran a successful PR company catering to clients like Ford and Payless ShoeSource was found murdered at a posh resort in South Africa – and her Guatemalan boyfriend has been arrested and charged with premeditated murder in connection with her death.
The July 29 killing of Gabriela Alban, 39, at the Camps Bay Retreat Boutique Hotel in Cape Town, where rooms cost up to $10,000 a night, has left her friends shocked.
“It is devastating,” friend Aida Phillips tells PEOPLE. “I just found out she was dating this guy a few months ago. She was super happy.”
“She was the sweetest, most caring woman,” says another friend, Monica Prieto. “One of those women that like to nurture others, which led her to some toxic relationships with troubled men.”
“It was a really big shock,” says another friend, Ivette Serrano. “Nobody really knows what happened.”
An official cause of death has not yet been released. Her 41-year-old boyfriend, Diego Dougherty Novella, who was reportedly a member of a powerful Central American family, was arrested after her body was found.
Alban was “very focused on her company and career, her dogs and family,” Prieto says. “Smart women sometimes fall for the wrong men.”
Prieto adds that Alban was “absolutely loved” in the PR industry. “The media world is brutal, lots of envy, backstabbing, however I never met one person, not one, that did not love her. Not one.”
Alban, who grew up in Los Angeles, attended Pepperdine University in Malibu. She started Conexién, a PR company focused on the Hispanic media market with Martén Llorens, a well-known author and a renowned fashion and lifestyle expert, in 2002.
Llorens posted a tribute to his friend and business partner on Facebook:
“She was fun and very stylish,” remembers Serrano.
Serrano says Alban was passionate about her work and making her business a success.
“She was very invested in her business,” says Serrano. “She was well known in Los Angeles. She was very media savvy.”
As Novella sits in a jail cell awaiting his next court appearance, friends of Alban still struggle to understand their loss.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how upset her friends are,” says Phillips.
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