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. 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 FOUR - SENSING NOTHING
Desperate and battling drug addiction, Nicola Cruickshank had nowhere left to turn.
Police couldn't solve the disappearance of her daughter. So, 15 years after Amber-Lee went missing from a house in Kingston she put her faith in Sensing Murder. The premise of the controversial TV show is that psychics tap into the spirits of murder victims to find evidence to solve cold cases. Not a single case has been solved as a result of the show.
• READ MORE: Chasing Ghosts - The baffling disappearance of Amber-Lee But Nicola is a spiritual person and genuinely believed they could help unravel the mystery. I'm Anna Leask, crime reporter for the New Zealand Herald.
Nicola was filmed speaking about Amber-Lee and what happened at the lake that day in 1992.
Then, psychics Kelvin Cruickshank and Deb Webber gave readings on the case. Warwick Walker, the cop initially in charge of the investigation went with Nicola and sat in on those readings.
After filming Nicola was invited back for a one-on-one reading with Kelvin Cruickshank.
The pair share a surname but are not related.
Kelvin told Nicola that Amber-Lee had been killed by a man known to her family. He had dark hair and a beard or moustache. He was in his 30s, tall and slim and smoked self-rolled cigarettes. He hunted, was fit and worked in place where he did a lot of heavy lifting.
He was married with kids of his own.
He was connected to the cannabis scene, and his birthday was in April, August or December. The letter K was important.
Kelvin told Nicola that this man abducted Amber-Lee from the house at Kingston and took her to his four wheel drive parked close by.
He bundled her into the front passenger seat, covered her with an oilskin jacket and drove away. Then, he strangled Amber-Lee to death.
The reading led Nicola to one conclusion, one man.
Ken Barrett. NICOLA CRUICKSHANK: What happened there it was after the reading with Kelvin Cruickshank and I was on the plane home and all I could think of in my head was 'you know the person, you know the person' because that was drilled into me from Kelvin that I knew who the culprit was.
Well, his name just came to me out of the blue. I don't know why I thought of Barrett and the more I thought of him I thought 'oh my God him and his partner looked after Amber, they looked after her a lot'.
The person that took her and did this to her she knew, she went willingly to them according to the psychics.
At the time, Barrett was the partner of Nicola's good friend Lyn Walter.
The couple lived in Otautau with their son.
Barrett was tall, slender, dark-haired and his birthday matched the psychics' readings. He grew dope, he hunted, he smoked rollies. And his first name started with K. The police had never linked Barrett to Amber-Lee's disappearance.
Amber-Lee Cruickshank. Photograph supplied
And, Nicola said she hadn't considered Barrett being involved until Sensing Murder.
After she got home from filming, Nicola rang Lyn Walter, by then separated from Barrett.
Walter kept detailed journals and Nicola asked her to check the weekend Amber-Lee went missing.
Nicola says she was told Barrett had been away hunting that weekend - and that he had an oilskin jacket. Barrett and Walter later gave statements to police saying he was home that weekend. Nicola believes what she claims is a shift in their story is suspicious and says Walter cut off contact after that phone call. In 2008 Barrett was named as one of several suspects in the case by Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine. And locals talked - like they do. There was chatter of Amber-Lee being killed over drugs or a drug debt, that Barrett took her, killed her and buried her in Long Bush near Otautau until things settled down.
That he buried her at a family property and built a shed with a concrete floor on top of her.
There is absolutely no evidence to back any of that up.
It's all speculation.
But in Nicola's mind, as a result of Sensing Murder, Barrett has been number one suspect for a decade.
She told me that she received further information solidifying her theory last year.
A man known to Barrett was allegeldy overheard at an Invercargill pub talking about how he helped bury the vehicle Amber-Lee was killed in. That information was passed on to Nicola, and then the police. The person who overheard the conversation was interviewed. But absolutely nothing came of it. Police say there is no evidence, and never has been, that Barrett took, harmed or killed the little girl. He's never spoken publicly about the accusations levelled at him by Nicola, other media or locals. But I hoped he would talk to me.
Nicola Cruickshank on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Her daughter Amber-Lee disappeared here in 1992. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott
After some digging I found his address, a rundown wooden villa on a central Invercargill street.
The large section is filled with old house buses and other rundown vehicles. The doors on the rickety, red wooden garage are covered in old number plates. I visited with Herald video journalist Mike Scott. The first time we knocked, there was no answer, no movement. When we went back we met Barrett's housemate, his brother Merv. ANNA LEASK: Hi there, we're just looking for Ken Barrett?
He's not here at the moment.
Do you know when he'll be home?
What's all this about?
Oh we're just from the NZ Herald, my name's Anna and this is Mike.
We're just working on a story that we thought he might be able to help us with and we'd like to talk to him.
Well I'm his brother Merv. What's it to do with?
It's to do with the disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshank.
Oh ok... all that again.
Yeah.So we're aware that Barrett's name's been raised over the years by people. And we're also aware that no one's really come to him and given him a chance... Are you able to tell us what you think of all of the rumours and the allegations that have been levelled against Barrett?
Ha. Like you say, rumours. A lot of hearsay out there - until you've got some evidence, you've got nothing you know? I mean somebody starts a spark, it caused a fire.
I wouldn't like anything pinned on me because whether you're guilty or not, people believe it.
And that's why we're here to talk to Barrett, because a lot of people are talking.
You leave your name and number and I'll get him to give you a call or let him know that you'd like to talk to him. We went back a few hours later, hoping to find Barrett home from work. MERV BARRETT: I talked to Barrett, he said if you want any information - talk to the NZ Police.
Ok, we've done that, so…
He said they should have come and talked to him before the slander started the first time round.
No good coming to me now after all this sh*t's gone down.
ANNA LEASK: He knows that we haven't written anything doesn't he?
No, I said that was Ian Wishart and he said it doesn't matter, they should have talked to me earlier, they want to know about it now, talk to the police.
Me mind's made up. Sorry, I can't help you.
After that trip I wrote to Barrett, explaining why I wanted to speak to him. I told him I wanted to give him a chance to set the record straight, that I understood why he'd be angry at the media after previous coverage of the case, but I wanted to do things differently. He didn't respond. We returned to Invercargill one last time, hoping we could convince him to speak to us. This time he was home. ANNA LEASK: Hi, just wondering if Barrett is home at the moment?
That's you, hi Ken I'm Anna from the New Zealand Herald.
Oh I know, you sent me a card thing.
Hey look, we're just down here on another job and we thought we'd call back in and see if you might be interested in speaking to us about…
Well I don't see the point in any of this because for the simple fact is they chucked my name in the hat, I wasn't even involved in it. Nicola recalls being close to Barrett and Walter, that they often looked after her kids. But Barrett says that's not the case.
He didn't have time for her and even says he banned her from his place after she left drug paraphernalia in his driveway.
He says he watched the Sensing Murder episode and knew immediately it was pointing at him. He believes, in his words, he was "stitched up". That the psychics were led to him by someone wanting to divert attention from themselves. So when the police got in touch at Nicola's insistance, he was happy to make a statement. KEN BARRETT: I even said to the cops get a polygraph f***ing machine out, I'll do a polygraph test.
But I am, I was pissed off and absolutely f***in furious when it come to air because when I watched it I said to my son 'f***, that makes it look like they're trying to fit me up for it".
As far as Sensing Murder goes, what a load of sh*t those people are saying they could see this and that and me involved in the whole thing.
I wasn't involved in it.
I've never harmed a kid in my f***ing life.
I've got a grandson who's 10-years-old, beautiful wee boy.
F*** I'm not an a***** person like that.
ANNA LEASK: So you went to the police when it came out? KEN BARRETT: When they asked me to go and see them.
Why didn't they come and see me when I lived in Otautau? Why didn't they talk to my ex in Otautau. She's my ex now but she wasn't then.
Barrett said he was at home the weekend Amber-Lee went missing. He says he had no idea Nicola and James had even left town. He only found out they'd left only after news broke that Amber-Lee vanished. He says he was nowhere near Kingston.
In fact, his relationship with Walter was about to collapse and he was having an affair with a young solo mum, so he was probably with her that weekend.
As we've heard, Sensing Murder referred to a man with a four wheel drive. Barrett says he owned a Land Rover but sold it before Nicola and James left town. And, he claimed the clutch was buggered, that it was in no state for a four-hour round trip to Kingston. KEN BARRETT: Righto, the Land Rover wasn't capable of going anywhere further than to the guy I sold it to at Oporo.
It had a burnt out clutch because I got it stuck up in the forestry months and months prior to this sh*t.
It had no clutch working in it, it had no brakes to it.
And when I sold it I sold it because I couldn't afford to f***in fix it and my partner at the time wanted some work done on the house.
So I sold my jeep and that's the only reason I sold it. And I regret selling it now because I could've done it up and kept it.
The memorial plaque to Amber-Lee in Kingston. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott
Remember, Barrett is convinced that someone pointed the finger at him to hide their own secret.
He believes Nicola knows more than she is letting on and has information that could lead police to Amber-Lee. Police are confident that's not the case - but Barrett's not swayed. KEN BARRETT: She knows alright, f*** oath she does - there's no way you could not know. And it's no good her pointing the finger at me because I've had nothing to do with it.
And I'll do a polygraph test whenever.
Barrett said the groundless speculation has had a big impact on his life.
It's obviously affected you having your name put out there?
F**** oath it has.
I've had all the people in the locker room at work smirking and sniggering... saying oh look that's that , yeah it's him.
People in the f****in street look at ya sideways and think oh yeah, that's **** Ken Barrett, he's involved in that Cruickshank bull****. F*** off.
I just... it has p*ssed me off.
It's f***** my life up heaps of times.
You go for another job, people won't hire you because of this sh*t - oh you could be involved in that.
Are you involved in that? No I wasn't.
ANNA LEASK: What do you say to people when they ask you 'did you take Amber-Lee'?
I just say find out the f**** truth. I said if I was guilty of this I would be locked up mate.
There's no evidence of me being involved.
There's a lot of hearsay and bullshit - people saying 'I think Ken Barrett done it... I think he was involved.'
ANNA LEASK: It's been a hard 25 years for you with this hasn't it?
Well f***, it hasn't done me any favours has it?
You know, bloody hell.
Barrett doesn't believe Amber-Lee simply vanished. KEN BARRETT: I don't believe that one bit.
There'll be some sightings or something.
And if the kid was harmed and murdered for instance, the body would have turned up. I'd love to get my head round it, I'd love for the police to get the answers to that case.
I honestly would. It would clear my name.
I'd like to be able to solve the bloody case, there you go. I honestly would.
If I knew one piece of information that would help solve that case I would have told the cops years ago - but I wasn't involved, I didn't have the close relationship that they made out on TV.
Barrett urged anyone with information to come forward.
KEN BARRETT: Twenty five years later or not, it's never too late to do something right.
Be honest. Be some sort of decent person.
Barrett was emotional when we were speaking to him.
He got teary at times and was adamant he was not involved.
I wanted to rule him out once and for all if I could. So I spoke to Detective Sergeant John Kean, the current officer in charge of the case. ANNA LEASK: There have been theories over the years, many of them put to Nicky, that a man known to her, a man named Ken Barrett took Amber-Lee, killed her and disposed of her body.
Has that been investigated and how far did you get with that?
DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN: That information came through Sensing Murder and that was done about 15 years after Amber-Lee went missing.
Yes, we've put some effort into that investigation and we're no further ahead.
ANNA LEASK: Is Sensing Murder and shows like that, and psychic involvement, is that helpful to police at all?
DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
It's a difficult question for me to answer but I think what it does do is it may give people some false hope and I think that's possibly what's happened on this occasion.
Detective Sergeant John Kean is the current head of Operation Oliver, the search for Amber-Lee Cruickshank. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott
I also asked Warwick Walker, the original officer in charge, about Barrett.
He retired from police more than 20 years ago but still keeps tabs on the case. RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER: Yes, there was a line of inquiry around somebody to do with drugs and a drug debt.
That has been investigated as I understand both privately and by the police and at this stage there is nothing that can confirm that.
ANNA LEASK: You were involved in Sensing Murder - was that helpful at all to the investigation?
RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
I don't believe so, no. Nicky wanted to be involved in it and again, that's natural when every other logical avenue has been explored and you know, you've only got to put yourself in Nicky's situation where your child is missing, every other explanation's been looked at and been unsuccessful - then what is the harm in doing that?
I don't believe that psychics can help find her, certainly in that case and in anything else I can remember from Sensing Murder it's been sensing nothing really, it hasn't advanced it at all.
Sensing Murder is a popular show. There have been almost 40 episodes over five primetime seasons since it began in 2006. But it has its critics, people who claim it preys on the vulnerable. The Herald reported earlier this year that the current makers of show said the psychics were nothing more than an "entertainment angle" to boost viewer numbers.
They urged police to focus on the benefit of primetime exposure for cold cases.
Internal police emails say there has not been a single piece of useful information from the show's entire run.
The latest season of the show was produced by Screentime. But when Amber-Lee's case featured the show was produced by a company called Ninox, run by David Baldock. I called Baldock to ask if, as Barrett suggested, he'd been stitched up. And, I wanted to know, now that he's no longer involved with Sensing Murder, if he still stood by what was aired about Amber-Lee.
DAVID BALDOCK: During the readings and particularly from Kelvin, came up the whole background of Amber-Lee's mother being involved in the drug scene.
And my understanding, my recollection, is that was a surprise to police - they had not investigated or gone down that route.
The reading was so strong from Kelvin's perspective that we went back to Amber-Lee's mum and Kelvin did an interview with her.
That was the first time we'd ever done that kind of approach, and that's because we're trying to get to the bottom.
I've always maintained that by doing Sensing Murder we are bringing unsolved cases back into the public arena, in primetime television, so they're getting maximum exposure.
I stand by the psychics readings as I did then and I do now, that they are absolutely as you see them unfold on screen.
There is absolutely no information whatsoever that's given out beforehand, they don't even know the location of where they're going before we put them on a plane separately.
So when Kelvin and Amber-Lee's mum agreed to do an interview after it, it was Kelvin really pushing her in terms of her background and her past and, was there someone that could have had a vendetta against her?
So she came up who she perceived it could be, there was obviously a strong inkling in the readings about someone from her past.
We passed the information, all the information that we had, over to the police and that's where it rested.
I notice in your message to me you say that whoever this person is has said their life has been upset - I don't know how that could happen, we certainly never gave out any identification about anyone that could have been involved, and that's very important.
Sensing Murder presents situations or possible situations from a psychic perspective, and that's all it is - a psychic perspective.
It's never seen as possible evidence, it's merely an opportunity where an investigation may or may not want to proceed.
We've had many cases where the readings have absolutely aligned with where police believed the true suspect was.
But at the end of the day you need hard evidence, and that's a totally different ball game, and that's in the hands of the police.
Sensing Murder psychic Kelvin Cruickshank. New Zealand Herald file photograph
I also wanted to speak to Kelvin Cruickshank about his psychic reading.
I wanted to know if he stood by what he told Nicola, and what he thought of her pinpointing Barrett as a suspect.
KELVIN CRUICKSHANK: Oh, hi there Anna, Kelvin Cruickshank speaking, I believe you're trying to get hold of me?
Sorry I can't get to you, I'll leave a message for you.
The message reads, Sensing Murder, Amber-Lee Cruickshank - I went out and did my job, spoke to Nicky the mother, read for her and there was a guy who I described and therefore she's obviously, through investigations or through herself has tracked that person who looked similar.
I believe the initial was K that was given.
But I did not, and I repeat, did not give a full name and she's just taken it on her own back, not me or the Sensing Murder team or the investigation team.
They've obviously cleared him.
I do stand by my word, but Nicky needs to perhaps think about other people or people who were involved in her life at the time and of course being a person involved in the drug scene she obviously can't remember.
So yeah, I did not say any names or anything like that, I just did my best for Amber-Lee and that's all I can say.
If there's anything else you want to know, give me a call back.
Thank you very much.
Nicola believes in the psychics and has visited others over the years, who she says have given similar readings to the Sensing Murder team. That's her right and I don't judge her. But I had to tell her that the two detectives closet to the investigation into her daughter's disappearance both reject rumours about Barrett's involvement. They say the chance of him driving from Otautau to Kingston, snatching Amber-Lee and driving back without being seen is slim, at best.
ANNA LEASK: Ken Barrett has been a suspect in your mind for a long time.
Current and past police that we've spoken to say they've investigated him as much as possible, they can't take it any further without new information or new evidence.
They've told us that there are other people that it's more likely or more probable would be responsible than him.
What do you think of that?
Well, to be honest with you, I feel like I'm back at square one again. I just don't know.
I mean, it's all circumstantial, I don't know why I thought of him.
I could very well be wrong, I mean, there is no evidence.
These are the questions I asked all the time and you know, I'm sorry that I accuse - because that's what I've done, I've accused Ken because I felt really strongly that he's had something to do with it.
It's crucial to remind you that Barrett has never been charged in relation to Amber-Lee's disappearance. Police say there is absolutely no evidence he's involved, nor do they believe his allegations that Nicola knows more than she's saying.
NICOLA CRUICKSHANK: I don't know what I would do if I came face-to-face with him actually, I really don't.
I mean, i could be wrong - it may not be him…
That is the hardest thing about this is I don't know.
You ask all these questions and you just can't have any answers, you just surmise you know?
It's like playing detective yourself. If I had the money I would have hired a private investigator many, many years ago when this case was fresh to go through it and maybe we wouldn't be standing here today, 25 years later.
So, if Ken Barrett had nothing to do with Amber-Lee's disappearance - who did?
In the next episode of Chasing Ghosts, the police explain who they think had the best opportunity to abduct Amber-Lee.
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.