Ian Manuel was just 13 years old when he approached Debbie Baigrie outside a Tampa bar, armed with a gun, according to Today. Baigrie — who’d just given birth to her second child — had been out with friends and was about to get into her car when Manuel asked her for change, pointed a gun at her face and fired.
“I then started to run for my life,” Baigrie told People back in 2014. “When I got help it felt like I had run eight miles but it was only about 100 yards.”
A bullet pierced Baigrie’s mouth and jaw, causing extensive damage. It would ultimately take 10 years to fully rebuild her jaw, according to Today.
“It blew out all the bottom teeth and the gums on the lower left side of my mouth,” she said.
Police picked up Manuel a few days later on an unrelated case, and he confessed to shooting Baigrie while he was in custody. The judge in his case wanted to make an “example” out of Manuel and sentenced him to life behind bars without parole, People reported.
Baigrie’s road to recovery was long and painful, both physically and mentally. But as she began to learn more about the boy who shot her, something changed.
“I was so angry,” she told People. “But when I found out how young he was I was absolutely heartbroken. How could a boy that young be so violent? It was unfathomable to me.”
And then, just a year after the shooting, Baigrie’s phone rang. She was shocked to learn it was Manuel on the other end, calling to apologize and wish her a merry Christmas.
“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.”
Baigrie didn’t realize that call would be the beginning of an unlikely friendship. Manuel began to write her letters from prison, and she kept all of them in a box. After a while, she began to write back.
I thought, wow, this kid is smart,” Baigrie told Today. “Let’s not waste this life. Let’s give him a chance. He was smart, he was remorseful.”
The more Baigrie learned about her attacker, the more she felt for him. Manuel grew up in a violent neighborhood with a drug-addicted mother, so he spent most of his childhood unattended, Baigrie told People.
“He really doesn’t have anyone,” she said.
So she began to advocate for him. She helped him earn his G.E.D., attended his hearings and petitioned for his early release. The Supreme Court overturned life sentences for minors back in 2010, and earlier this month, Manuel was finally released with time served.
His first act as a free man was to meet the woman he’d hurt in a gas station parking lot. When the pair got out of their cars, they embraced.
“I didn’t feel like I was hugging a stranger,” Manuel told Today. “Debbie’s not only like a guardian angel, she’s like a second mom.”
Baigrie and Manuel shared a pizza at a nearby restaurant — coincidentally, just a few blocks from the scene of the shooting, Today reported. They talked about their lives, her kids and grandchildren, his plans for the future and other topics old friends might cover.
“We all make mistakes, we all try our best, and life is so short,” Baigrie told Today. “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.”