Ian Manuel spent 26 years behind bars after he shot a woman in the face when he was just 13 years old, but he rarely felt alone. That’s because the woman he hurt, Debbie Baigrie, decided to forgive him — and more.
The night he shot her, in Tampa, Florida, on July 27, 1990, is something they both still relive.
Baigrie, then 28, was out with friends for the first time since giving birth to her second child, and she was walking back to her car to head home. Manuel, who had a history of minor run-ins with the law, was with a group of older men and was being peer-pressured into robbing someone that night.
The ensuing altercation nearly turned fatal when Manuel pulled the trigger on a gun he was handed and sent a .32-caliber bullet through Baigrie’s mouth.
“The days after the incident, I was obviously scared and in pain,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I kept on wondering, Who could have done this?”
Three days later, Manuel was arrested and confessed to the crime. In February 1991, he pleaded guilty to armed robbery and attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. (No one else involved was ever identified.)
While Baigrie began to physically heal — ultimately undergoing some 40 dental procedures to rebuild her gums and teeth — the mental healing would take some time.
“I buried my emotions,” she says. “I never cried about it, and I never felt sorry for myself. I had two young kids to take care of. The focus was on them.”
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Her ‘Adopted Son’
Baigrie and Manuel never thought they’d talk to — let alone see — each other again. But in December 1991, he decided to pick up the phone in prison and ask for her forgiveness.
“I didn’t consciously forgive him,” Baigrie explains. “It was just over time, when I got through my trauma.”
Their brief initial conversation turned into a lifelong friendship. Baigrie, who became one of Manuel’s biggest supporters, says she always thought he deserved a second chance: “He was so young. It was a mistake.”
“It wasn’t hard to forgive him,” she says.
Over the years, the pair exchanged dozens of letters.
“Even though he was so young, he was thoughtful,” Baigrie says, adding, “You could tell in his letters how thoughtful he was. They were so well written.”
Baigrie says she encouraged Manuel to get his GED, writing to him “about the importance of being well read and staying positive.”
“I’d tell him he has to keep learning, reading and improving himself,” she says.
Manuel sent her back his GED scores. “She became a mother to me,” he tells PEOPLE. “She helped me grow up.”
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In November, Manuel, now 40, was released from prison six years after a Supreme Court decision prohibited life sentences for juveniles charged with anything less than murder.
When he walked free, with help from the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit involved in his case since 2006, Baigrie was there to greet him on the outside.
She says Manuel became “like my adopted son.”
Looking to the Future
Manuel is now writing a memoir about his story and living in Montgomery, Alabama, where he works for the EJI. The group pays for his apartment through its Post-Release Education and Preparation program.
He just got his first bank account and is learning how to cook, drive, grocery shop and do laundry. He has spoken to college classes about his story and wants to help others, saying that maybe his purpose in life is to change the life of someone else.
While Baigrie, now 55, still lives in Tampa, Manuel is thankful for her support.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without her,” he says.
Some of the most “encouraging advice” she’s given him, he says, is about public speaking.
“Twenty-six years is a long time,” he says. “Eighteen years in solitary is a long time. There were times that doubt would creep in. Would I ever get out? Would I get out of solitary — let alone prison?
“I’m just so thankful for this opportunity, and I’m thankful that Debbie survived and that I survived as well.”