What you see here appears to be a photo of some old friends. People who have known and loved each other for a very long time.
Photo: Debbie Baigrie
The truth is, this is the first time that Debbie Baigrie and Ian Manuel have seen each other in more than 26 years. The last time the two came face-to-face, Ian Manuel shot Debbie in the mouth during a robbery. He blew out part of her jaw, her back teeth, her front teeth and part of her gums.
Ian was 13 years old.
The two met in a parking lot at a Florida gas station, just hours after Ian was released from prison. “Ian and I got out of the cars and we hugged for two minutes,” Debbie explains. “It was like a long lost reunion. It was so nice.”
How can this be? How can a woman who was innocently mugged and nearly killed be warmly hugging the ex-prisoner who did that to her? Their story might surprise you.
In 1990, Ian was 13, living in one of the poorest and most violent housing projects in the entire state of Florida. He lived in Tampa. One July evening, while out with a group of friends for the first time since having her second child, Debbie was approached by Ian and a group of older teen boys.
Ian pulled a gun on Debbie and told her to “give it up,” before he started shooting. That’s when one of the bullets went into Debbie’s mouth and out her jaw.
“It blew out all the bottom teeth and the gums on the lower left side of my mouth,” she said. It also knocked out her front tooth and ripped part of her tongue.
Ian was arrested days later in an unrelated case. While in custody he admitted to being the gunman that wounded Debbie.
Although he was barely a teen, the judge noted Ian’s prior arrests and sentenced him to life without parole. The judge said they were going to make an example out of Ian. “They sentenced him to an adult prison,” Debbie said. “To me, that was heartbreaking.”
“Let’s not waste his life.”
As Ian approached his second Christmas behind bars, he gathered the courage to place a collect call to Debbie.
“What do you say to somebody you shot, you know?” Ian explains. “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.’”
Debbie says that the call came as a complete shock. “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.”
Soon after that, he began sending letters, which at first Debbie admits struggling to believe were written by him.
“His letters were so articulate and he was so young,” she said. “I don’t even know if he had started high school yet.”
After being transferred to another prison, he continued to write Debbie and tell her about his experience and time being locked up.
“I thought, wow, this kid is smart,” she said. “Let’s not waste this life. Let’s give him a chance. He was smart, he was remorseful.”
So she began writing him back.
The two quickly developed a tight bond. They’d even call themselves friends. Debbie even began going to his court hearings, and the two would casually exchange waves.
But many of Debbie’s friends and family members didn’t understand her empathy. Some of them still don’t, often calling her delusional and foolish.
“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.”
At the beginning of his sentence, Ian was placed in solitary confinement, a measure taken according to officials because of his age and size. Though their interests seemed protective, the isolation did more harm than good. It had a severe impact on Ian’s mental health.
“Once in solitary confinement, it’s very hard to get released without achieving performance objectives that were impossible for a 15-year-old boy who had been told he would die in prison,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of The Equal Justice Initiative.
Ian repeatedly acted out, which ultimately cost him nearly 20 years separated from other people in prison.
In 2010, the Supreme Court threw out life sentences for Juveniles, and Debbie began advocating for Ian’s early release, arguing that he had served sufficient time.
After being thrown out completely, his life sentence was reduced on two separate occasions.
On November 10, based on time already served, Ian Manuel was released from prison at the age of 39.
A Second Mom
Photo: Debbie Baigrie
Once his release was processed, he was headed to Alabama to join a program that helps former child inmates adapt to life outside of prison.
But first, he had one very important stop to make. He met Debbie at a Florida gas station, and the two embraced like the old friends that they’ve become.
“I didn’t feel like I was hugging a stranger,” Ian explained. “Debbie’s not only like a guardian angel, she’s like a second mom.” His real mother, along with other immediate relatives, died while he was in prison.
“I got to do something that I had only dreamed about for so many years,” he said. “I got to kiss her on the same exact spot that the bullet either went in or came out.”
Right down the road, just a few blocks from where the shooting took place, the two friends shared slices of pizza, snapped selfies and talked about future plans. Debbie shared photos of her daughters who were 1 and 3 when she was shot.
Photo: Debbie Baigrie
Ian is now adjusting to his day-to-day life. It’s a slow and long process, but Debbie and his legal team are helping him through it. She hopes her friendship with Ian will inspire 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.”
**This article originally appeared on Faithit.com on November 29, 2016.