In July 1990, Debbie Baigrie was a 26-year-old stay-at-home mom in Tampa, Florida, who had just given birth to her second child. One balmy evening, Debbie’s girlfriends convinced her to join them for a happy hour that turned out to be anything but happy after Ian Manuel, then just 13, shot the young mother in the face as part of a gang initiation.
Now, more than 26 years later, Baigrie is not only in contact with Manuel, but she’s spent years supporting his rehabilitation and actively advocating for his release.
Thus, when Manuel, now 39, walked out of prison a free man on November 10, Baigrie, now 52, was there to greet him and embrace him. The pair then shared Manuel’s first meal in freedom together.
Baigrie, beaming, told the press: “It was like this reunion with a long lost son…. We just hugged for two minutes. It was very like [a moment] 26 years in the making.”
Coming from a broken home devastated by addiction and abuse in a crime-ridden neighborhood, teenage Manuel shot Baigrie to join a local gang. After approaching Baigrie at gunpoint in a parking lot, Manuel yelled “Give it up!” and opened fire, his bullets repeatedly hitting Baigrie in the mouth.
Prior to the near-fatal shooting, Manuel had been arrested 16 times. The boy’s attorneys reportedly cut a plea deal in hope of a reduced sentence. Instead, the judge “wanted to make an example” of Manuel and sentenced him to life behind bars. After a 2010 Supreme Court ruling outlawed such terms for juveniles, Manuel’s sentence was changed to 65 years.
Debbie Baigrie endured years of painful surgeries and physical rehabilitation to recover from the shooting. One thing she did not recover from, however, was her heartbreak over knowing her attacker was a child.
For a while, Baigrie says, anger dominated her, but after Manuel contacted her from prison to apologize for the crime, she felt overwhelming compassion and forgiveness.
According to Baigrie, “When you forgive, it helps yourself.”
As a bond grew between the victim and her assailant through the years, Baigrie wrote letters and appeared at numerous hearings to testify on Manuel’s behalf, noting how young and troubled he had been, and how he had used his time in prison to educate and improve himself.
Baigrie said, “It’s the fact he survived against all the odds and solitary confinement for over 20 years. He educated himself; he came through this and he came through a nice guy; not hardened.”
Finally, on November 10, following yet another in-person endorsement from Baigrie, Manuel won parole.
Talking to a reporter from a re-entry program in Alabama, Manuel said of Baigrie, “For her to be there for me continuously for 26 years, 3 months, and 10 days later after our incident it was just amazing, it was just amazing.”
Main photo: Debbie Baigrie Berkovits’ Facebook page