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Victim recalled as full of promise, with a heavy metal edge

Friends and a former teacher say O.C. shooting victim Courtney Aoki was a gifted writer and performer. But she had recently developed a tough exterior.

February 21, 2013|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Courtney Aoki "was on her way to do something great," a former teacher says.
Courtney Aoki "was on her way to do something great," a former…

In the splintered world of high school, Courtney Aoki was someone remembered for blazing a path all her own.

She favored red and black, and walked through the halls wearing cat ears. She carried a journal in which she would jot down poetry, and had a grasp of literature that stuck in her teacher's mind years later. And she enjoyed musicals — "Chicago" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show" were among her favorites. Her ambition was to one day be on stage, working as an actress.

"She was on her way to do something great," said J.C. Marquez, her English teacher at Renaissance High School for the Arts, which she attended for two years.

Yet it remains puzzling to those who knew her, as well as investigators, why the 20-year-old was in a bedroom of a Ladera Ranch condominium, fatally shot before dawn Tuesday — the first victim in a rampage through Orange County in which authorities said Ali Syed stole a car and aimed his shotgun randomly at motorists, killing two others before shooting himself.

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 — Syed and Aoki had, but 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 Amorminosaid.

That includes examining the contents of the computers owned by Syed, the 20-year-old unemployed, part-time community college student described by officials as a loner who spent countless hours holed up in his bedroom playing video games.

Three days after her death, those closest to Aoki are at a loss.

Danni Wood, 23, had known Aoki since they were both students at Renaissance 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.

Wood reconnected with Aoki in recent years, and said she talked on the phone with Aoki two days before she was killed. Aoki gave her relationship advice.

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 Marquez, who lost track of her after she left Renaissance.

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 just seemed to get it," Marquez said, "and she wanted to absorb more of it."

In 2010, she attended a program for young performing artists in Orange County 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."

Not only could she sing and dance, he said, but was supportive of her classmates who weren't as confident in their performances.

Aoki later 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 for Friday the 13th that she got with a friend last year. Her Facebook page included a take-life-as-it-comes quote: "Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today."

But friends said it was a shell that cloaked her genuine personality: thoughtful and kind-natured, if also a little nerdy.

Hebert didn't stay close after Aoki left Renaissance, only reconnecting briefly during their senior year. But the reasons Aoki was a memorable person are still vivid in her mind.

"The key thing is that she was just so sweet and lovable," Hebert said." Even if you thought she was weird, you just couldn't help but smile when she was around."

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mike Anton, Rick Rojas and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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