O.C. shooting: Violent death of aspiring actress remains mystery
Since her days as a high school free spirit, Courtney Aoki developed a tougher exterior, with a heavy-metal edge.
Tattoos began covering her body, including one of a black widow on her chest with the number 13. Her Facebook page included James Dean’s devil-may-care quote: "Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today."
But friends said it was all a shell that cloaked the genuine personality of the 20-year-old: thoughtful and kind-natured, if also a little nerdy.
What drew her to a beige-colored condominium in master-planned Ladera Ranch, however, remains a mystery. And why she ended up dead from several gunshot wounds presents an even bigger mystery.
Although friends and authorities have said that Aoki was working as an escort, no one is rushing to connect the occupation with her violent death.
It's unclear what relationship — if any — she had with Ali Syed, the 20-year-old part-time college student accused of killing her and going on a cross-county carjacking and shooting rampage.
Authorities in the south Orange County community where Aoki’s body was found said she was found fully clothed, and there was no evidence of a sexual assault.
"There's still a lot of work to do in this case," Orange County Sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said.
That includes examining the contents of the computers owned by Syed, described by officials as a loner who spent countless hours holed up in his bedroom playing video games.
Days after her death, those closest to Aoki were at a loss.
Danni Wood, 23, had known Aoki since they were both students at Renaissance High School for the Arts in Long Beach. They liked to listen to the beats of Sublime and the high-pitched pop of Aqua, and were in a clique that practiced magic after school.
The two fell out of touch when Aoki left Renaissance after 10th grade, moving to Norwalk High School.
Carina Hebert, a friend at Renaissance, explained that Aoki left the arts-oriented school because her family was having financial problems. "It just became too hard on her mom to drive her there every day," Hebert said.
Aoki's mother didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
The two had talked about going to an anime expo and shopping for Aoki's birthday in June — her 21st. They were also thinking about getting tattoos together on Wood's birthday next month. "That was the plan," Wood said, "and now it's not going to happen."
She said that Aoki had recently worked at a fast-food restaurant and was taking classes in massage therapy.
But those who knew her as a high school student recalled a young woman with flair and big plans — someone with remarkable talent and individuality.
"She had everything going for her in terms of writing," said J.C. Marquez, her English teacher at Renaissance who lost track of her after she left the school.
In class, he said, she approached literature with an appreciation rare for a teenager, whether the assignment was analyzing Charles Dickens’ ' "Great Expectations" or doing a table read of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
"She was on her way to do something great," said Marquez.
In 2010, she attended a program for young artists at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and made an impression with her dynamic stage presence.
"She was comfortable on the stage," said Jim Perez, who manages the program for the Orange County Board of Education. "It was her home."
-- Nicole Santa Cruz
Photo: Courtney Aoki, who also went by the name Kitty Kitanna. Credit: Facebook.