South Island toddler Amber-Lee Cruickshank disappeared 25 years ago from a small town on the shore of Lake Wakatipu.

Despite exhaustive and repeated searches, there has never been any sign of the little girl.

The Herald senior crime and justice reporter Anna Leask investigated the famous cold case in a bid to generate some answers for the toddler's family.

In October, to mark the 25th anniversary of Amber-Lee, the Herald released Chasing Ghosts, a six-part podcast series, news feature and mini-documentary about the case - one of the most well known mysteries in New Zealand history.

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It was our first true crime podcast.

This week, we are publishing the full transcript - more than 24,000 words - in a bid to give this case more publicity.

We want to bring Amber-Lee home.

Can you help?

EPISODE THREE - LITTLE GIRL LOST

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
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 and the older she got they continued to stay red and I don't what that was about...

Nicola Cruickshank will never forget the details of her daughter Amber-Lee's birth.

May 5 1990.

2.45pm.

7 pound and nine ounces.

Bright blue eyes, fine fair hair and those rosy red cheeks.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
I remember watching her coming into the world and I was awestruck to see that she was a little girl.

I already had my son so I was quite happy about that and kinda changed my mind in regards to adopting her out.

So, yeah, I decided to keep her and bring her up with her big brother Harley.

ANNA LEASK
So when you found out you were pregnant you were considering adopting her out?

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
Yes.

I'd even looked at a home, looked at a family and thought well, they could give her a lot more than what I could being a single mum.

So yeah, it was very much on the cards.

ANNA LEASK:
And then you saw that little face?

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
Yeah, no, that was it, that was the turning point for me.

I'm Anna Leask, crime reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

In this episode of Chasing Ghosts we look at Amber-Lee Cruickshank's short life - and her mother's descent into drugs and gangs.

For years people have speculated that Nicola's lifestyle was linked to her daughter's disappearance – that Amber-Lee was snatched or sold because of a drug debt or for some kind of payback or vendetta.

In episode two we heard police say that simply isn't true.

But Nicola's all too aware of the rumours and today she'll tell her life story in unflinching detail.

She wants critics to hear the truth - once and for all - so the spotlight can return to the search for her daughter.

• READ MORE: Chasing Ghosts - The baffling disappearance of Amber-Lee

When Amber-Lee was only a few months old, Nicola met James Gill and the pair bought a house on Katrine Street in Otautau, Southland.

The young couple didn't have a perfect relationship - but they were in love, and James loved Nicola's kids like they were his own.

Nicola always smiles when she remembers those days at their first home - Amber-Lee's first birthday, her beloved pink trike, her little laugh.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
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.

Yeah she was 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 which was quite annoying sometimes for the big bro but I don't think he would mind if she was to ever do that again.

Nicola's close friend Katrina Atariki moved in with the couple and had a lot to do with the kids.

Atariki still carries a photograph of Amber-Lee around in her handbag.

It's worn around the edges and you can tell it's been handled often over the years.

She considered Nicola's children family and cherishes her memories of Amber-Lee.

KATRINA ATARIKI:
She liked having her hair done, tied up in pigtails, and picking out her clothes to wear as she got a little bit older.

She was cool, good little girl, loved her mum, loved her brother Harley, loved her cats and dogs.

She was pretty social, only if you knew her quite well though.

Amber-Lee's childhood was short but happy.

She was loved and looked after.

Sadly, that's often overshadowed by her parents' lifestyle at the time.

Nicola is no angel and she's never professed to be, nor has she ever claimed to be a perfect mother.

She was, in her own words, a junkie for most of Amber-Lee's life.

And let's not forget she was trying to bleed poppies for opium when her daughter disappeared.

She worked as a prostitute and she spent a lot of time with gangs.

Since Amber-Lee disappeared she has, very publicly, journeyed down a rabbit hole of methamphetamine and self-destruction.

She's clawed her way back, only to spiral down again - and again.

It wasn't supposed to be like that.

Nicola has never asked for sympathy for her choices or actions, but today she wants to explain them.

Like her daughter, Nicola had a happy childhood - loving parents and a safe, stable home in Gore at the bottom of the South Island.

But an incident when she was 14 turned her world upside down.

One day she went with a mate to the home of a family friend.

The man was married with a newborn baby, so when her mate went home, Nicola had no worries about being alone in the house with him.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
He said his wife was coming home the next day with their newborn and could I help tidy up the house.

I didn't see a problem with that so I proceeded to do that, and in return, he raped me.

So yeah, my life turned upside down.

Nicola went to the police and the man was charged with rape.

After the teenager gave painful evidence in court about her attack, the man was acquitted.

Nicola felt failed by the system - worthless and dirty.

She says her life turned to s*** after that.

She started to drink and smoke cannabis to block out her pain.

Pills followed and eventually harder drugs like heroin.

At one point she decided to train as a jockey and her father helped get her a job at an Invercargill stable.

But that didn't last long and Nicola, much to the disappointment of her dad, ended up in Timaru where she started injecting drugs.

By then she was well and truly hooked.

NICOLA CRIUCKSHANK:
I lived there for a while and that's when I became involved with the Road Knights.

Got beaten to a pulp in a nightclub one night by one of the women and put on the back of a bike and taken to Christchurch and dropped off at, what I didn't know then but I soon found out, was a working house - a brothel.

One of the guys I went out with held a gun to my head and was going to kill me and when he was jumped by a girlfriend a lot older than me I managed to escape and became involved with this gang because of it.

Yeah, so, at the ripe old age of 16, I soon learned how to earn my keep.

That happened until I met Harley's dad and fell pregnant with him.

It was a fling relationship I suppose you'd call it, he had a mrs which was unbeknown to me until a few years later.

At 18 Nicola gave birth to her first child, a son she named Harley.

She wanted a good life for him and managed to give up the drugs.

She moved back to Gore and tried to make a clean break.

But then she became involved with another gang and met Amber-Lee's father.

It was another relationship that wasn't to be, another attempt at going straight.

He left soon after Amber-Lee was born and Nicola moved back to Invercargill.

There she met James Gill - and her drug use escalated again.

Amber-Lee was still a baby when Nicola found out she was pregnant with her third child.

That's when she and James bought their house in to Otautau, a sleepy town about 50km north-west of Invercargill.

Things were good for a while, but soon it became clear the only way to escape the underbelly of drugs and gangs was to leave Southland for good.

They sold up, bought a house bus and left for the West Coast.

They were driving there on the day Amber-Lee disappeared.

We heard in episode one about their plan to visit one of James' mates in Kingston on the way.

Nicola was excited, dreaming of getting clean, settling down, raising the kids properly.

Life was finally going to be good.

But that day, life took the worst possible turn.

During an unscheduled overnight stay at Kingston, Amber-Lee disappeared - and so did Nicola's dreams and hopes of kicking drugs.

During the two months after Amber-Lee vanished Nicola and James struggled.

Searching every day for the child, getting little sleep and the stress of it all took a huge toll on them.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
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.

So yeah, that was very hard.

And then we moved up to Christchurch, we had to move away, and my relationship with James became very rocky.

You know, you couldn't help thinking - who did this? Where's she gone? Those questions you asked every day...

I lost the plot.

I totally lost the plot, I was not, um, coherent, probably for three years of my life - because of the drugs.

I did a lot of morphine intravenously, really wasted.

I ended up on the methadone programme.

And then I don't know what made me snap, I can't remember, it could have been an article I did after three years or something, I don't know what it was but I decided to turn my life around - again.

There's many times I've tried and tried to get my s** together, and failed.

I got a week's worth of takeaways of methadone, I sold five of them and took two with me and went on a road trip down south with a lot of weed and took myself off the 'done and sort of got straight.

I spoke to James a few times this year and he was always reluctant to speak publicly about the case.

He didn't want anyone, in his words, "cashing in" on Amber-Lee.

When I explained to him that I was working with Nicola, and that our aim was to try and get answers, he agreed to be interviewed.

But when the time came, he pulled out and then cut off all contact with me.

I know James has struggled with the loss of Amber-Lee over the years, he told me he's dealt with a lot of s*** since she went missing.

So maybe reliving it all was simply too hard for him.

Back to Nicola, and the aftermath of Amber-Lee.

As hard as Nicola had tried, the lure of drugs and gangs was too strong.

Her relationship with James had ended and the bereft mother was utterly lost.

She called her father and said "I can't do it anymore".

He was always there to support Nicola, and told her to get the kids and come home, that he would look after her.

She went back to Gore, got a job shearing and started to rebuild her life. Again.

She met a new man, who she married, and had another baby - Jacob.

Nicola was finally stable, pretty much drug free and happy.

Until her marriage fell apart.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
I kind of hit another rocky patch, failed again you know, there was nothing good in my life, it turned to custard and I got involved in methamphetamine.

And then I ended up heavily involved in the meth scene.

In 2007, drug-addled and desperate, Nicola put her faith in Sensing Murder, the TV show that features so-called psychic detectives seeking answers in cold cases.

Nicola did the initial filming and was later flown back to Wellington for a one-on-one reading with psychic Kelvin Cruickshank.

Despite sharing a surname, Nicola and Kelvin are not related.

Nicola was full of hope when the reading began.

Then she was told that Amber-Lee was dead, that she'd been brutally murdered.

It would have been her daughter's 17th birthday.

We'll talk more about Sensing Murder, and hear from Kelvin Cruickshank in the next episode.

Nicola says the experience sent her into another spiral - the worst one yet.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
It was one of the hardest interviews I've ever had because for 15 years I believed that there was every chance that Amber-Lee was still alive you know, that she was still here.

And then to be told on national television that she's been strangled or had her neck broken and that I know who did it - wow.

You have no idea what that did to me inside and how hard it was for me to keep that together.

I went f*** the world, I just can't take this anymore.

I hit the meth pretty hard and started making it and in turn got set up and turned over and ended up in jail.

The case made national headlines.

Nicola was the first woman in Canterbury convicted for making meth.

She made it in her home four times - small amounts for her own use.

There was no evidence she was ever selling it.

At sentencing she was described as a woman with a long history of addiction.

In the High Court at Christchurch Justice John Fogarty said he was satisfied Nicola was finally committed to beating her habit.

He said she had a good shot at doing so - but needed help.

He suggested she had treatment for her addiction, treatment she could get in prison.

Nicola Cruickshank at Lake Wakatipu in Kingston in 2017 ahead of the 25th anniversary of her daughter's disappearance. Photo / Mike Scott
Nicola Cruickshank at Lake Wakatipu in Kingston in 2017 ahead of the 25th anniversary of her daughter's disappearance. Photo / Mike Scott
NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

For the first time in, crikey, I was 40, so in 20 odd years, had I been clean and I had to learn how to live life without drugs.

And part of that was learning how to deal with the emotions that you felt when things like this arose or other loved ones that were very dear to you have passed on and I'm just grateful to the judge that he gave me jailed because those tools that I learned helped me in these last 10 years to survive how other people survive.

And I feel the emotions now, and they hurt - they hurt like f*ck.

They're raw but I have other ways and means of dealing with it now.

And through support, I have more support now than I did back then.

I mean, you've gotta understand, junkies are not very nice people, I mean, I wasn't a very nice person for a very long time.

Nicola now says prison was the best thing that ever happened to her.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
It was the first time since I could recall ever having structure, um, a roof over my head, three meals a day, routine, and the best thing of all - drug free for I can't even count up the years

Some say 'you're a junkie and junkies never change' but that's bull**** because you can if you want to.

Apart from cannabis - which Nicola has always been open about using - she is now drug-free.

It's been almost 10 years since she was sent to prison and finally got clean.

And, she intends to stay that way.

And despite the odd legal scrape since her release, she's on the straight and narrow.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
Once I got out of jail which was 10 years go I've really turned my whole life around.

Yes, I've been still known to smoke marijuana but hey, you know, the system has a problem with it, not me.

But, I have lived in the same place for the last six-and-a-half, coming up seven years, which is a record for me since I left home at the age of 15.

I've always been here, there, everywhere, I have moved - I've never settled.

I've held down a job and run my own business and still got a job for the last five-and-a-half of those years.

My boys are my life, they really are.

I live for them.

If it wasn't for my sons, I wouldn't be here.

I live for my sons and now my grandsons, they're my world, they rock.

In spite of her dreams of getting clean on the day Amber-Lee disappeared, as we've heard, Nicola was trying to get high when her daughter went missing.

That fact cannot ever be hidden, and Nicola accepts that.

She knows critics see her as a useless junkie mum, more interested in drugs than her own child.

She's had hate mail, been told she deserves what happened to her - what happened to Amber-Lee.

But no one can punish her as harshly as she has punished herself.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
I mean, I haven't made good choices in my life, and I know that.

And I have been a victim - I was the victim of rape, not just once.

I've lived through that, but that's nothing compared to living through this.

And yes, I did choose to bleed those poppies that night but I didn't choose for someone to come along and do what they did to Amber.

And yes, it was the wrong choice, but that was my life back then - it's totally different to who I am now.

I carry a lot of guilt because of that, I always will... people tell me 'you shouldn't feel guilty Nicky'.

But I do, because she was my responsibility, she was my daughter, I should have been taking care of her instead of worrying about taking care of others - because basically that's what I was doing.

You know, I should have put my foot down and said no, and dealt with the kids, but I didn't - and that was the wrong choice, and now I'm paying the price.

I don't wish this upon my worst enemy - even the bastard who's done this.

I don't wish it upon them, to have to live through this and carry the guilt that you weren't protecting your child at the time - you were looking after yourself and others.

It's easy to judge Nicola, but I really want people to look at the bigger picture before writing her off.

The fact is, she could have been doing anything at the moment Amber-Lee disappeared and the outcome would have been the same.

She could have been in the shower, she could have been doing the dishes - anything.

It comes down to this - regardless of what she was doing she thought the little girl was with James when she vanished.

I want people to understand - or try to - what it must be like to have a beautiful little girl taken away, suddenly and with no warning, to spend 25 agonising years wondering, searching, asking, and getting no answers.

NICOLA CRUIKSHANK:
Unless this has happened to you and you have gone through this yourself, you've got no idea, no idea what this does to you, how it makes you feel, how it makes you think, how it makes you act, what you do to numb it - or to deal with it.

ANNA LEASK:
To survive?

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
Yes.

Some say I'm a brave woman - I don't feel very brave.

It's hard, I just can't explain it... rips my heart.

And we're forever asking that question - who the f*ck's done this? And why?

Twenty five years of f*cking suffering., 25 years of living it year in, year out, not knowing where by daughter, where the boys' sister, has gone.

All we want is to have her, to put her to rest.

It's just the answers, you know? Is she dead ? Is she alive?

I've been thinking about this, I feel like I'm back at scratch, I'm back at the beginning.

I am no further ahead 25 years down the track than I was the day she went missing. Because I'm still asking that same question - who did this? Where is she?

This is the reason why I do these interviews - to put it out there, to voice it, to be heard, you know?

Amber-Lee deserves that, she deserves to be in people's eye, you know, in their minds, have people thinking

I'm her voice - and I'm not going to stop looking not until the day I get some answers or she comes home.

I'm never going to stop.

It's all about Amber-Lee.

I mean, the focus has always been on me because of my drugs - I mean, because they believe she was taken because of drugs, because of Sensing Murder.

Back the truck up people, this is an innocent girl here who was taken and she didn't do a Goddamn thing wrong.... not one thing wrong.

She was innocent.

UP NEXT:

In episode four, we speak to a man who, for the last decade, has been considered a prime suspect by many in the disappearance of Amber-Lee.

We find out why he's come under the spotlight and for the first time, he opens up about the case.

Chasing Ghosts is a New Zealand Herald podcast.

Concept, research and writing: Anna Leask

Field recording, photography, video: Mike Scott

Post production: Big Pop Studios

Executive producer: Chris Reed

Special thanks to Nicola Cruickshank.

If you have any information about the disappearance of Amber-Lee, please phone Detective Sergeant John Kean on 021 191 5321.

To pass on information anonymously, contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Help bring Amber-Lee home.