It was 1990. Debbie Bairgrie lived with her family in Tampa, Florida, and on her first night out with friends since having her second child, she was walking home when someone approached her and shouted, “Give it up! ”
Debbie turned around to find a gun pointed at her head.
Before she could react he pulled the trigger and a bullet ripped through her jaw, bottom teeth, and tongue. When the ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, it became clear that a few fractions of an inch difference would have meant instant death. But somehow she was still here.
Three days later she learned the name of the assailant: Ian Manuel. He had been arrested for a string of crimes and confessed to her shooting. But one detail shocked her. Manuel was only 13 years old. How could a child commit such a barbaric act? She couldn’t begin to comprehend it. She was frightened, baffled, and also furious. He had shattered her life.
And not only her life. Debbie’s shattered jaw would take a decade to be rebuilt and heal.
Ian, meanwhile, in his first year as a teenager, was sentenced as an adult to life in prison. The judge wanted to make “an example” of him. The first year passed and Debbie was still struggling daily with the impact of the attack. Then one day she received a collect call. The voice on the other end of the line was unsettlingly familiar:
“Miss Baigrie,” it said, “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.”
She wasn’t prepared for this. She had never expected an apology from her attacker. Perhaps even more unexpected was the admiration she began to feel for him, such a young person overcoming his shame enough to reach out to her and say those words.
Ian began writing Debbie letters from prison, describing his life inside the four walls of his cell and sharing his immense feeling of guilt. Debbie would write him back and encourage him. “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.”
Over those first 10 years they corresponded and Debbie slowly recovered through numerous reconstructive surgeries. At first they kept Ian in solitary confinement because he was so much younger than the prison population. But later, distraught by his long isolation and frequently acting out, he got sent back there.
She began signing her letters, “your friend.” And gradually she found herself advocating for his release together with groups like the Equal Justice Initiative, who supported Ian starting in 2006. It was clear to her that he didn’t belong in prison, much less in an adult prison, and for the rest of his life.
Finally in 2010, a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated life sentences for minors and everything was about to change. Debbie got ready. “I figure if I didn’t help and support him, it would be a life lost. And my life wasn’t lost, and I felt like his punishment was way beyond what it should have been.”
In November 2016 — at the age of 39 — Ian was released. Debbie drove to meet him at a nearby gas station, and when they got out of their cars, she hugged him like he was her own son. In fact, since all of his immediate family had died while he was in prison, Debbie felt like a mother to him now. They talked for a long time. Ian told her about his hopes for the future. Debbie showed him pictures of her two daughters, who are now adults as well.
Debbie made an extraordinary decision to forgive her assailant, and even to get to know and befriend him. To this day, some of her friends and family can’t understand it. You can learn more about their whole story here on video:
Today, the woman who got shot and then forgave her attacker, and the man who committed, then paid for the crime with 26 years of his life, including a third of his childhood — are friends. As one of his lawyers said, “What does it mean to a traumatized kid, racked with guilt and stuck in solitary confinement, to have the person he hurt recognize his humanity? Ian would not be where he is today without her.”
Debbie revealed something moving and important about forgiveness itself. “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.”