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O.C. shooting: The stage 'was her home,' instructor says of victim

February 21, 2013 |  4:21 pm

Courtney Aoki envisioned herself as an actress when she participated in a summer stock program at the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

It was a program designed to help propel at-risk teens into a world of acting and to help them gain confidence and real-life lessons in perseverance.

"I've always wanted to be an actress," Aoki, then 18 years old, said in a 2010 Daily Pilot article about the program. “And this is helping me towards my goal.”

PHOTOS: Shootings at multiple locations in O.C.

Aoki was shot death Tuesday in what authorities said was the launching point of a violent rampage carried out by a 20-year-old part-time college student who allegedly blazed his way across the heart of Orange County, stealing cars and shooting people.

Authorities said Ali Syed shot three people to death before putting a shotgun to his face and killing himself in the middle of an intersection in Orange.

The connection between Syed and Aoki -- found dead in the man’s Ladera Ranch bedroom -- remains a point of mystery, authorities said.

MAP: Orange County shootings

Former teachers and friends said they were shocked by her violent death and remembered her as an artistic and bright teen who had a knack for classic literature and wrote poetry in a book she carried with her.

Jim Perez, manager of the Orange County Board of Education program for young performers, recalled Aoki as not only a dedicated performer but also one who would help those less gifted than she was.

“She was bright individual. She was very artistic; someone who loved the theater and performing arts,” Perez recalled of her participation in the summer program in 2010.

“She was always very excited to apply her singing, dancing and performance skills," he said.

The summer program was selective; participants were chosen based on teacher recommendations and interviews. It involved eight-hour days of voice, music and dance lessons, culminating in public performances.

“Courtney was more experienced in theater than most students in the program, and I found her supportive of helping others who were not as confident in their abilities,” Perez said.

“She was comfortable on the stage. It was her home.”

When Aoki was a freshman at Renaissance High School for the Arts in Long Beach, she had an appreciation for literature that was rare for a teenager, said J.C. Marquez, her English teacher.

Whether it was analyzing Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" or doing a table read of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," Aoki was consistently focused, Marquez said.

"She just seemed to get it and she wanted to absorb more of it," he said of Aoki’s classroom demeanor.

Marquez, now a teacher at Los Alamitos High School, said Aoki carried around a journal in which she sometimes wrote poetry. He said that Aoki moved to a different school and that he lost touch with her.

"This girl was extremely talented,” he said. “She had everything going for her in terms of her writing."

Danni Wood, 23, of Long Beach said she met Aoki at Renaissance High in 2007 and the two quickly bonded. Wood said that she and some other friends liked to practice white magic after school together, and that they dressed differently.

Aoki got along with Wood’s family, who she became close to, she said. The two fell out of touch when Aoki went to Norwalk High School, she said, but connected again in 2011.

They enjoyed listening to bands Sublime and Aqua together and accompanied each other to a heavy metal concert in October, she said.

Wood said she talked to Aoki on Sunday on the phone and that Aoki gave her relationship advice.

She said the two were planning to get tattoos on Wood's upcoming birthday, March 29, and had talked about going to an anime expo and about going shopping for Aoki's birthday in June.

"That was the plan, and now it's not going to happen,” Wood said.

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-- Richard Winton and Nicole Santa Cruz
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