A Herald investigation and podcast series.
Words by Anna Leask, visuals by Mike Scott, design by Jennifer Adams.
The disappearance of Amber-Lee is one of New Zealand's most baffling and best-known cold cases.
She was last seen on October 17, 1992 at Kingston, a small town - more of a hamlet back then - at the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu.
It was a tragic case of miscommunication.
Both of her parents thought the other was watching the toddler, but neither actually had an eye on her.
It was 45 minutes between the last sighting of Amber-Lee and her mother realising she was missing.
Kingston was combed over and over again - the bush, the lake, every house, shed, culvert, creek - anywhere a little girl could have crawled or fallen in, anywhere she could have been hidden or buried.
Since that last sighting there has not been any sign of Amber-Lee, not a sighting, not a clue.
For 25 years her family, particularly her mother Nicola, have lived under a dark shadow of grief, guilt, frustration and endless, gnawing, soul-destroying questions.
Earlier this year, Nicola agreed to work with the Herald to take a fresh look at her daughter's disappearance.
She wanted to put a fresh focus on the case, to do what it takes to bring the little girl home.
Amber-Lee Rose Cruickshank was born in Gore at 2.45pm on May 5, 1990.
It was a Saturday and her mother watched the baby girl come into the world through a mirror.
The birth of her first child was extremely traumatic so she was nervous, and the mirror allowed her a sense of control over what was happening.
When Amber-Lee arrived Nicola was “awestruck” and fell in love immediately.
A single mum, Nicola had planned to give her second child up for adoption, to allow another family to raise her and give her a better life.
But when she locked eyes on the baby and realised she had a daughter, all bets were off.
“I remember watching her coming into the world and I was awestruck to see that she was a little girl.
“That was it. That was the turning point for me.
“It took 10 days to give her her name. I used to sit there and I wrote down on a pad all these names and then I eliminated them with things that didn't ring right or true and then I came up with Amber-Lee Rose Cruickshank, which I thought had a lovely ring to it.
“The Rose was because she was like a little rosebud. From the day she was born she always had red cheeks.”
Amber-Lee was a happy little baby who grew into a bright and bubbly toddler.
“She was a breath of fresh air. She was bubbly, a real chatterbox. Loved to help, whether it was in the kitchen, hanging out washing or throwing the pegs everywhere so you had to go and pick them up before you could hang the washing,” Nicola told the Herald.
“Yeah, she was a joy to be around, she was always happy, she always had rosy red cheeks, she was always smiling. She doted on her big brother, followed him around like a bad smell.”
There is no doubt that Amber-Lee and her brother Harley were much-loved children.
But Nicola had demons that she’d been battling since she was a young teenager, and their little lives were punctuated by her drug use and involvement with gangs.
In mid-1992, after the arrival of her third child Danny, Nicola and her partner James Gill decided it was time to leave the trouble behind, to get clean, to start fresh and raise their little family properly.
They were living in Otautau, Southland at the time.
They sold their house, a roomy white wooden villa on Katrine St, and bought a house bus.
Their plan was to drive to the West Coast and carve out a new, drug-free life for themselves.
Two days before they
left Otautau, Nicola
posed for a photo
with her three kids.
would be the
ever taken of
Saturday October 17, 1992.
Nicola and James boarded the house bus.
Amber-Lee and Danny were in the back and the young couple hoped they would sleep as they drove north.
They said goodbye to Harley, who was going to stay with a family friend and finish his last term at school before joining them on the coast, and set off.
James had a mate named Richard Dette who lived at Kingston with his partner Belinda Sayer and he wanted to call in for a quick visit on the way across country.
Kingston was only an hour-and-a-half away so it didn’t take long for them to reach Dette’s place – after a stop at Mossburn for ice creams, which Amber-Lee loved.
About 15 minutes out of Kingston, near Garston, a bike tied to the back of the house bus whacked into the back window, shattering it.
When Nicola and James reached Kingston they surveyed the damage – and the mess, glass all through their beds and belongings – and decided they’d have to stay at Dette’s the night and clean it all up.
Dette’s house was on Cornwall St; right on the lakefront and they parked the house bus on a grass verge opposite the house.
Nicola got the kids changed after their naps and took Amber-Lee down for a paddle.
The toddler hated water so Nicola wasn’t sure how she’d go.
“Amber put her toes in the water and ohhhh there was just no way that she was going anywhere near that lake after that, it was too cold,” she said.
It was a sunny spring day. They decided to have a barbecue and then a few boats went out on the water – people were skiing and it was, from all accounts, a lovely day.
Nicola managed to convince Amber-Lee to go out on a boat with her.
“My fondest memory is being on the boat and her sitting on my knee just laughing,” Nicola said.
“She was just so happy to have the water just splashing up and that is the last memory that I really have with Amber-Lee is on the boat that day.
“That's the one I hang on to 'cos she was so happy and I was so happy. We were doing something that she loved, she wasn't in the water but she was on the water... and that's something I'll always hang on to.”
“I can see her now, laughing, with blonde hair and her rosy wee cheeks...”
Conversation soon turned to plans for the night.
James and Dette went out to clean up the bus.
Nicola was nominated by the group to go out the back of Dette’s and bleed the poppies he was growing. She wanted to get opium so they could get high.
Despite Nicola and James’ plan to go straight, they decided it would be okay to have one last taste with their mates.
Nicola wasn’t keen on doing the bleeding – extracting the opium from the flowers – but she agreed and headed out the back.
Sayer went for a shower, and then whipped around to a friend’s house to do some washing.
As she left she saw Amber-Lee near the driveway and assumed the men were keeping an eye on her.
That was the last time the child was ever seen.
“Probably 30 minutes had gone by," said Nicola.
"James had come out to see me, ask how I was getting on and I just said to him it was bullshit. I said ‘this is a waste of time I don't even know why I'm doing this. What are the kids doing?’
“He said Danny's in bed, and I said ‘where's Amber’ and he said ‘I think she's in watching TV’.
“I said, ‘is she?’ He said ‘yeah, well I think she is’.
“That’s when I went inside, didn't see her sitting inside watching no telly, called out to her and didn't hear anything and I went into the bedroom and thought maybe she's gone and crawled into bed. No, she wasn't in bed so I went outside and said has anybody seen Amber and they went 'no' and I went 'you're kidding me' and then just went into a panic and started yelling out her name and running into the house and going out by the lake and looking.
“The sun was going down and my heart's racing and I'm running around and I said look, I can't find her anywhere, and everybody dropped what they were doing and started looking and started door knocking.”
Nicola was frantic.
But at no stage did she think 25 years would pass without a single answer.
At 9.12pm she made the 111 call and police and search and rescue volunteers converged on Kingston.
There wasn't much they could do so they called the search off 'til daylight.
From 8am to 5pm on the Sunday and Monday they searched – scoured – the area.
More than 100 people were involved – kayakers on top of the water and divers below; tracking dogs and a helicopter were brought in but they could not find Amber-Lee.
The search was called off at the end of Monday.
Amber-Lee was presumed drowned.
The nightmare was just beginning for Nicola and James.
“Every day for the next, 'til December, we went out and we searched everywhere,” she said.
“There was mail sent care of Kingston shop for us, there were maps inside those envelopes and we went on every one of those wild goose chases, walking the railway tracks, looking down in hollows - looking everywhere.”
She eyed up every person in Kingston, looking for clues that they were involved, becoming more and more suspicious.
“After two months it got a bit unbearable you know?
“There's nothing turning up, and we had combed Kingston. And if you've ever been to Kingston, it's not a very big place so you can pretty much walk every inch of it within two months and we did that.
“And we went out on the boat, we went round the shore in case she was in the lake and had surfaced. That was very hard.”
They erected a plaque in memory of Amber-Lee and planted a tree – a liquidambar – in the children’s playground near the lake, about 100m from where she was last seen and left the scene of their tragedy.
“We had a memorial service, much to a lot of people's disgust, but I didn't know what to do. I couldn't just leave it, so we planted a plaque and a tree in her name,” Nicola said.
From there, her life – and her family – spiralled dramatically.
“I lost the plot. I totally lost the plot, I was not coherent, probably for three years of my life – because of the drugs,” she said.
“I did a lot of morphine intravenously, really wasted. I ended up on the methadone programme.”
Nicola is brutally honest about her drug use.
She started smoking cannabis and drinking heavily at 14 after she was raped by a close family friend.
The substances helped her to cope, numbed her.
There were attempts to clean up, go straight, but her demons were too strong and her addiction had too much of a hold.
In 2008 she was jailed for manufacturing methamphetamine and hit rock bottom.
Her most significant fall came soon after she participated in the television show Sensing Murder.
On what would have been Amber-Lee’s 17th birthday Nicola was flown to Wellington for a one-on-one reading with a so-called psychic detective.
He told her that Amber-Lee was dead, and effectively, it was her fault.
“With all due respect to you, your past has hit you big time,” he told her.
“Unfortunately some nasty person who’s been in your life has decided to seek revenge.”
Nicola gave up that day.
“It really threw me – I went f**k the world, I just can't take this anymore,” she said.
“I hit the meth pretty hard and started making it and in turn got set up and turned over and ended up in jail.
“It was, in all honesty, the best thing that ever happened to me. I mean, I thank the judge that day that he did send me to jail. I know it rocked my family, I know it rocked my friends. It certainly f**king rocked me - but it was what I needed.
“I spent my 40th in jail. From the age of 14 to 40 I've been a drug user. Some say 'you're a junkie and junkies never change' but that's bullshit because you can if you want to and I'm living proof of that.”
Nicola is now clean, apart from occasional cannabis use which she is very honest about, and has turned her life around.
She’s got a good job, been living in the same place for almost seven years and remains close to her sons Harley and Danny - and Jacob, born a few years after Amber-Lee vanished.
But her life is still hard.
Imagine waking up every day and not knowing where your child is - or another member of your family you love dearly.
Imagine the wondering, the speculation, the frustration - the torment.
Nicola doesn’t have to wonder.
She lives it, feels it, every second of every day.
In the archives room at the Dunedin Police Station is a set of about 30 boxes.
They are all marked Operation Oliver – the name of the investigation into Amber-Lee’s disappearance.
They are filled with statements, tips, letters, photographs – anything and everything pertaining to the toddler.
The investigation is still open and active, and is managed these days by Detective Sergeant John Kean of the Invercargill police.
“There's been numerous theories that have been put forward – most if not all investigated to some degree,” he said.
“But the reality is there are only several possibilities and working through them, firstly is that did she disappear into the lake?
“Secondly, did she disappear on land?
“Or thirdly, was one of the people at the barbecue involved somehow in the disappearance of Amber-Lee?
“Or, did we have someone, a random person come into Kingston that day and abduct her, for whatever reason? Or was it someone else at Kingston on that day that may have some knowledge or involvement in the disappearance of Amber-Lee?”
While it’s a case of uncertainty and mystery, there is one thing Kean is sure of.
Amber-Lee did not end up in Lake Wakatipu.
He said the initial divers who went in the weekend Amber-Lee vanished found nothing.
They were hampered by bad conditions but a second search of the lake was conducted in November by the police dive squad.
“The conditions were much more favourable, the lake was clear and the search conditions were good,” Kean explained.
“They searched out to about a distance of 80m from the shore and the depth of the water out to that is about 12-15m. So, they reported visibility was up to 10m or more, they could see in the water. It was that clear they could see newspapers on the lake floor, possum carcasses and that kind of thing.
“The police dive team are confident that Amber-Lee was not in the lake.
“If she was in the lake, if she'd just wandered off and tragically stumbled and drowned, she would have been found on the night or the following day.”
Over the years police have thoroughly investigated tips that Amber-Lee was hit by a car and killed, sold to pay off a drug debt her mother had accrued, or been taken by a gang as payback for something Nicola or James did.
“To be honest I think a lot of that's been cruel towards Nicky,” Kean said.
“There's never been any substance to that. Yes in the early days that was looked at as a possibility, but was quickly dismissed.
“There was certainly never any evidence to suggest that something from Nicky's past has caused someone to go and abduct Amber-Lee. There was just no information to support that, no credible information.”
So what, in his opinion did happen to the little girl that day?
“I really don't know, but we certainly can't discount the fact that someone who was already at Kingston on the 17th of October 1992 holds the key to the disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshank,” he said.
Kean said no one at Kingston on the day - or anyone else connected to the girl or her family - had been ruled out and all would remain people of interest until Amber-Lee was found or the culprit arrested.
But, he was confident her mother and stepfather had nothing – even indirectly – to do with their daughter going missing.
“Someone out there must know,” Kean said.
“I know they know, I just don't know who.”
Kean said he “desperately” hoped that Amber-Lee would be found.
It’s affected him seeing what Nicola has been through over the years, seeing her hopes rise and then fall painfully every time there’s a suggestion of new evidence or information.
It’s frustrated him seeing her cling to hope given to her by psychics and the like, information that, as far as he can tell, is nothing more than make believe.
“I think that really what drives police officers is the fact that they just want to pick up the phone and knock on the door and say to the person 'I've got the answers for you. It mightn't be what you want to hear but I can answer those questions'. And that's what Nicky Cruickshank and her family deserve, so – yes, I do think about it. A lot,” he said.
Watch the mini-documentary.
Before Kean was a detective called Warwick Walker.
He’s been out of the police for more than 20 years but still can’t get Amber-Lee out of his head.
“It’s the most baffling case that I worked on in my 20-plus years in the police,” he told the Herald.
“I worked on some strange and weird things but nothing which is so unresolved.
“In spite of the isolation, in spite of there not being lots and lots of people around, how a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl can go missing in daylight is just baffling.
“The most likelihood is that somebody has taken her, somebody is involved and there is somebody out there who knows that.”
Walker has his own theories on who and why, and he’s sure that the person who took Amber-Lee is not the only person holding the terrible secret.
“I think it still comes down to two possibilities,” he said.
“There is a real but remote chance that she has wandered off and fallen down a hole, you know, it's an old mining area, there's lots of holes in the ground which are overgrown and albeit that search and rescue do a wonderful job, we're talking about bush, we're talking about things you can't see, holes it the ground.
“That's got to be a possibility that nobody else was involved and that she's fallen down a hole somewhere and banged her head on the way down so she hasn't been able to call out.
“But I think the most likely [scenario] is that somebody has taken her and been lucky to not be seen, it’s fairly easy to quieten a 2-and-a-half-year-old, you don't have to be very big to carry them away or just entice them and lead them away somewhere. I think that is the most likely occurrence.
“I suspect other than the perpetrator if somebody else was involved it's pretty hard for people to not tell anybody at all,” he said.
“Over the years they might keep it quiet but initially there will be some people who know.”
Nicola has imagined many times what it would be like to get that call – the one where a cop is on the other end of the phone saying “we’ve found Amber-Lee”.
Once, she got to feel what that was like. Almost.
“I imagined it for years and then one day it did happen – but it turned out to be a false alarm,” she said.
The police called and said they were arranging a helicopter to bring Nicola to Invercargill, that bones had been found.
Her boys were frantically trying to get home so they could go with her.
And then, the rug was pulled out from under them all again – the bones, found near the lake, were from a sheep.
“I remember how I felt that day, how I cried and screamed and curled up into a ball,” Nicola said.
“I just could not believe it. So I kind of got to feel what it was like to be told that she'd been found.... and then I got to feel what it was like to be told that they were mistaken, it was an animal carcass, and that was gut wrenching because I thought finally, we've got some answers.
“But no, not to be.”
She’s turning 50 next year and says all she wants, all she has ever wanted, is to know where her daughter is.
She’s past the point of wanting justice. Sure, she’d like the person who took her baby to face the full force of the law, but she’s more interested in bringing Amber-Lee home.
It won’t heal the decades of wounds, the torment and the trauma but it will bring Nicola and her boys some peace.
“At the end of the day I want her. F**k the justice side of it – I don't care,” she said.
“The karma will get him in the end whether it be some deadly disease or someone knocks him over or whatever - karma will bite him in the ass in the end. But in the meantime bring my girl home.”
“Bring her home, put it to rest. Give us some peace, that's all. That's all I ask for.”
She’s lost count of the number of times she’s begged and pleaded the public to help, for people with information to come forward.
But she’s doing it again and she hopes it will put an end to her 25-year nightmare.
“I have suffered enough, my family has suffered enough, my friends have suffered enough.
“Please, let her come home. Just tell us where she is. I don't care if it's anonymous.
“I would hate to think in another 25 years when I'm 75 sitting in my rocking chair, that I'm still wondering to that day, what went wrong or where she is.
Nicola is a woman who has been through hell and back – time and time again.
“She was taken and never returned and she's a part of our family that's missing and our family will never be complete without her in it in some way shape or form – never.
“It's always hanging over our heads, in spirit or in mind yes, but we'll never be complete.... never. Not until she comes home.