Courtney Aoki can be seen in the background at the top left of this photo from July 2010, when she attended a summer arts program in Costa Mesa. She was interviewed by the Daily Pilot for the story.

Courtney Aoki can be seen in the background at the top left of this photo from July 2010, when she attended a summer arts program in Costa Mesa. She was interviewed by the Daily Pilot for the story. (Scott Smeltzer / July 21, 2010)

Courtney Aoki envisioned herself as an actress when she participated in a summer stock program at then-called Orange County 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.”

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