Man who beat mother to death with hammer took at least 80 Benadryl pills before killing, defense says

There’s no dispute that David Noel McGee Jr. beat his mother to death with a claw hammer in their Escondido apartment last year. The question is: Why?

On Thursday, his defense attorney told a North County jury that her client — who she said has no history of violence — had overdosed on generic antihistamines, taking at least 80 allergy pills. The attack, she said, happened in “a fog of Benadryl.”

“The truth is on Feb. 1, 2017, David did kill his mom. But there is a difference between killing and murder,” Deputy Public Defender Lindsay Itzhaki said during opening statements in McGee’s trial.

McGee, 26, has pleaded not guilty to murder and using a hammer to kill his mother Rebecca “Becky” Apodaca — an attack so brutal, the prosecutor will not show autopsy photos to the jury in the Vista courtroom of Superior Court Judge Blaine Bowman.


There is also not much dispute that McGee ingested dozens of antihistamine pills. A toxicology screening showed diphenhydramine levels so extraordinarily high, he could have taken 100 or more, at 25 milligrams a pill, the prosecutor said.

Benadryl is the brand name of diphenhydramine, used to treat allergies.

It’s unclear exactly when McGee took the pills. It’s also unclear when he attacked his mother.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Keith Watanabe told the jury that 55-year-old Apodaca had been dead hours before she was found in the one-bedroom apartment on North Hickory Street near Lansing Drive that she shared with her son.


At 8 a.m. that day, the prosecutor said, Apodaca had failed to log in to her at-home medical billing job. Throughout the day, she never responded to multiple messages from friends, family and her supervisor.

After Apodaca missed dinner plans, her adult daughter stopped by to check on her. At roughly 6:30 p.m., she found her mother dead on her blood-soaked bed.

In the bedroom closet was her brother, naked and babbling. Frantic, the daughter called 911.

When firefighters arrived, McGee was lying on the floor — half in the bedroom, half in the bathroom — still naked and incoherent, his eyes bugged out, his pupils dilated, Watanabe said.


Police arrived and arrested him. His legs were shaking, and he couldn’t walk, the prosecutor said.

McGee had slit his neck and forearms.

Inside the apartment bathroom, police found two knives in the blood-smeared bathtub and a bloody toaster in the sink. The rug was soaked with water.

In the kitchen, investigators found a bottle of generic allergy medication, empty except for one pill stuck near the edge and two on the floor.


Testing of blood drawn at 7:40 p.m. revealed the overdose, in an amount Watanabe said was “huge, potentially lethal.”

The prosecutor said McGee’s symptoms were consistent with such an overdose — confusion, fatigue, agitation, lack of coordination. But, he told the jury, the attack was “very personal, very precise, very focused.”

The autopsy would show that Apodaca had been struck at least 10 times in a 4-inch by 4-inch area in the center of her face, Watanabe said.

McGee, the prosecutor said, “killed her on purpose. And we may never know why he did it.”


Itzhaki, the defense lawyer, told the jury that when McGee was 14, he suffered a stroke and it “turned his life in a different direction.”

McGee never returned to mainstream school, put on weight and became depressed, she said. As he grew up, he had few social outlets.

Friends and family never saw him be violent, the attorney said. McGee was “passive, almost a doormat.”

“How did we get here?” Itzhaki said, then held up a bottle of generic antihistamine pills. “This is how we got here.”


The defense attorney told the jurors they will hear from a toxicologist who will testify that such high levels of the antihistamine could lead a person to experience hallucinations, delirium and psychosis.

She told the jury that the prosecution will not be able to prove that there was an intent to murder.

“David killed his mom,” Itzhaki said. “There is no doubt about that. But it is not murder.”

The trial could run two weeks.


Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.