The last time Ian Manuel came face to face with Debbie Baigrie, he shot her in the mouth during a robbery gone awry, blowing out part of her jaw.
More than 26 years later, they met again in a Florida gas station parking lot, just hours after Manuel’s release from prison.
“Ian and I got out of the cars and we hugged for two minutes,” Baigrie, 54, told TODAY. “It was like a long lost reunion. It was so nice.”
Free for the first time since he was 13, Manuel said the first person he wanted to see was the woman he nearly killed.
"I got to do something that I had only dreamed about for so many years," Manuel said. "I got to kiss her on the same exact spot that the bullet either went in or came out."
In 1990, Manuel was 13 and living in Tampa in one of the poorest, most violent housing projects in the state.
One July evening, he was hanging with a group of older teens when they approached Baigrie, who was out with friends for the first time since having her second child.
More NBC's Season of Kindness videos
#ShareKindness: TODAY’s road to 1 million acts of kindness
Couple celebrates 70th wedding anniversary with sweet photo shoot
Newlyweds stuck in standstill traffic share first dance on highway
Teacher’s morning dance routine inspires classrooms around the country
Manuel pulled a gun and told her to “give it up.” Then he started shooting. One of his bullets went into Baigrie’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.
Manuel was arrested days later in an unrelated case. While in custody, he confessed to being the gunman who'd wounded Baigrie.
Although he was barely a teen, a judge noted his prior arrests and sentenced Manuel to life without parole.
"The judge said, 'Mr. Manuel, we’re going to make an example of you,'" Baigrie recalled. "They sentenced him to an adult prison … To me, that was heartbreaking."
"Let's not waste his life."
Manuel first reached out as he approached his second Christmas behind bars. He gathered his courage and placed a collect call.
"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,'" he said.
"That’s what I blurted out. What do you say to somebody you shot, you know?"
To Baigrie, who would undergo 10 years of surgery to have her jaw rebuilt, the call came as a complete surprise.
“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.”
Shortly afterward came the letters, which Baigrie initially thought somebody else had written.
“His letters were so articulate and he was so young. I don’t even know if he had started high school yet,” she said.
He continued to write after getting transferred to another prison, sharing his experiences behind bars.
“I thought, wow, this kid is smart,” Baigrie said. “Let’s not waste this life. Let’s give him a chance. He was smart, he was remorseful.”
So she wrote him back.
Because of laws preventing victims from visiting inmates, the two never met in person. But through their correspondence, Baigrie learned more about Manuel’s case. She began attending his court hearings, where the two shared an occasional wave.
Woman fights to free man who shot herPlay Video - 3:21
Woman fights to free man who shot herPlay Video - 3:21
Chicago nonprofit receives $30,000 from Mazda Drive for Good campaign
Meet 2 Marines getting help from Operation Mend after a deadly attack in Iraq
St. Jude Children’s Hospital joins TODAY to give thanks
Toddler who couldn’t walk is now a budding gymnast and fashion designer
Many of Baigrie's friends and relatives didn’t understand her empathy. Some still don’t.
“People would tell me, ‘You’re delusional’ and ‘You have Stockholm syndrome,’ which doesn’t even make sense,” she said.
“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.”
She was also upset by the time Manuel spent in solitary confinement.
At the beginning of his sentence, prison officials placed Manuel in isolation because of his age and size, according to The Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit whose attorneys have been involved in the case since 2006.
But the scenario didn’t necessarily protect Manuel from himself. Isolation had a severe impact on his mental health.
He repeatedly acted out, leading him to spend nearly 20 years separated from the general prison population.
“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, EJI’s founder and executive director.
In 2010, the Supreme Court threw out life sentences for juveniles, and Baigrie began advocating for Manuel's early release, arguing he had served sufficient time.
Manuel’s life sentence was eventually thrown out and reduced on two separate occasions.
On Nov. 10, based on time already served, Manuel, now 39, was freed from prison.
'A second mom'
Manuel's last day was spent waiting for his legal team to process his release. He was headed to Alabama to join an EJI program that helps former child inmates adapt to life outside prison.
But before that, he met Baigrie at the gas station parking lot, where the two embraced like old friends
“I didn’t feel like I was hugging a stranger. Debbie’s not only like a guardian angel, she’s like a second mom,” said Manuel, whose real mother, along with other immediate relatives, died while he was in prison.
They ended up at a pizza joint in downtown Tampa, just a few blocks from where the shooting occurred 26 years earlier.
Over slices and sodas, they chatted about his future plans and about her daughters, who were 1 and 3 when she was shot. She showed off pictures of her granddaughter and her dogs, and they snapped a few selfies together.
The impact of Baigrie’s support over the years is “hard to quantify,” said one of his EJI attorneys, Ben Schaefer.
“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?” he said. “Ian would not be where he is today without her.”
Meanwhile, since leaving prison, Manuel slowly has begun to readjust to society. He's gotten a haircut, opened a bank account and visited a laundromat, among other day-to-day tasks.
He's doing his best not to get overwhelmed.
“It’s crazy. I went shopping for groceries the other day, and I wasn’t lost, but society has changed so much,” he said.
Baigrie doesn’t know how their relationship will play out, although she knows they will stay in touch.
“We just have to let the dust settle. This is all very fresh,” she said. “My main wish and focus for him, as well as his legal team, is getting him acclimated and adjusted.”
But she hopes her friendship with Manuel 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.”