A Florida woman found the strength and the faith to forgive a young man who nearly killed her in a story of grace, redemption, and healing.
Twenty-six years ago, Ian Manuel was living in Tampa in one of the poorest, most violent housing projects in the state, according to NBC. At just 13 years old, Manuel was deeply immersed in crime and had 16 arrests on his record.
It was a July evening when, he, along with a group of older teens, saw Debbie Baigrie, a mother-of-two enjoying a night out with her friends. As part of his gang initiation, the young man pulled a gun and told her to "give it up" before he began shooting. One of his bullets went into Baigrie's mouth and out her jaw, knocking out her front tooth and ripping part of her tongue.
"It blew out all the bottom teeth and the gums on the lower left side of my mouth," she recalled.
A few days later, Manuel was arrested in an unrelated case, and confessed to being the gunman who'd wounded Baigrie. Despite his young age, the judge sentenced Manuel to life without parole, determined to make an example out of the teen. For a time, officials placed Manuel in isolation, negatively impacting his mental health. He repeatedly acted out, leading him to spend nearly 20 years separated from the general prison population.
Nearly two years after he was imprisoned, Manuel gathered up the courage to call Baigrie: "As soon as she accepted the call I said, 'Miss Baigrie, this is Ian. I'm just calling to tell you I'm sorry for shooting you, and I wish you and your family a merry Christmas,'" he said.
"That's what I blurted out. What do you say to somebody you shot, you know?"
To Baigrie, who would undergo 10 years of surgery to have her jaw rebuilt, said she was shocked by the call: "I was shaken by it because (the attack) was still so fresh at the time," she said. "But he called to apologize. I found it unusual and rare, especially from somebody that young."
She added, "I thought, wow, this kid is smart. Let's not waste this life. Let's give him a chance. He was smart, he was remorseful."
Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. The two began writing letters to one another and eventually struck up a friendship, but were never able to meet in person due to his prison sentence. Baigrie began advocating for his release: "I figure if I didn't help and support him, it would be a life lost," she said. "And my life wasn't lost, and I felt like his punishment was way beyond what it should have been."
In 2010 the Supreme Court threw out life sentences for juveniles, and Manuel's sentence was reduced. But, it was a Hillsborough County judge who decided on Nov. 10 Manuel could be released.
Hours after he was freed, Manuel once again met Baigrie, now 54, in a Florida gas station parking lot. However, the two meetings could not have been more different.
"Ian and I got out of the cars and we hugged for two minutes," Baigrie said. "It was like a long lost reunion. It was so nice."
"I got to do something that I had only dreamed about for so many years," Manuel said. "I got to kiss her on the same exact spot that the bullet either went in or came out."
He added, "I didn't feel like I was hugging a stranger. Debbie's not only like a guardian angel, she's like a second mom."
The two ended up at a pizza joint in downtown Tampa, just a few blocks from where the shooting occurred 26 years earlier, where they talked about their families and future plans.
As Manuel begins to readjust to society, Baigrie said she plans to keep in touch with her former assailant and hopes her story inspires others to forgive.
"We all make mistakes, we all try our best, and life is so short," she said. "And if anybody knows how your life can be gone in one minute, it's me. I understand that. We have to forgive, because it helps us heal."
Baigrie later shared photos from their reunion on her social media pages, showing Manuel hugging her and looking at photos of her grandchild on her cell phone.
"In a world of racial divide, political divide, lack of compassion and forgiveness... Here we sit, Ian and I, 27 years after he shot me when he was 13," she wrote in a caption. "He was released today after 26 years and I was so happy to share his first meal."