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 SIX - BRING HER HOME

Somewhere out there is a person with a terrible secret.

Someone who has likely killed a little girl, buried her body and hidden the terrible act for 25 years.

Amber-Lee Cruickshank, an innocent 2-and-a-half-year-old, vanished one spring Saturday night in Kingston, a hamlet at the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu.

Police are almost certain she was taken.

But who is responsible?

Will they ever come forward?

And what will it mean to Amber-Lee's family to bring her home, to get the answers they have been seeking for so long?

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

I'm Anna Leask and this is the final episode of Chasing Ghosts.

It's been a frustrating and painful 25 years for those close to Amber-Lee.

Losing her has destroyed the lives of her mother and stepfather, deeply affected her three brothers - two who never got to know her - and cast a dark shadow on those who have had the finger of blame pointed at them.

And it's weighed heavily on the minds of those tasked with finding the answers.

Amber-Lee's mother first spoke about that at Kingston where we spent two days revisiting the place the child was last seen, picking through every moment of her last hours.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
I really thought that maybe I'd get her back one day, that possibly someone was looking after her, you know, that they'd taken her, given her a life... but I've lost that hope now, and all I can hope for is to find out where she is.

I can't explain how it feels.

It hurts.

I mean, you look around, it's such a beautiful place I mean, stunning.

Nicola's three sons also wonder about their sister often. All become emotional when they talk about her.

Harley was five when Amber-Lee went missing and what upsets him most is that he can barely remember her.

Now in his 30s and with children of his own, he feels angry that he was robbed of a sibling and that his young life was turned upside down because of it.

Harley's birthday is on October 14 - just three days before his sister went missing.

He finds it hard to celebrate.

It's just another sad reminder of another year Amber-Lee has not been there.

ANNA LEASK:
What impact has her going missing had on your family?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
It's been massive with news, having to move, the year-to-year memorials and birthdays are always hard.

All these stories that come up every now and then... it just randomly pops up and you don't hear it first hand, you hear it from radio or things like that.

It's definitely been hard.

ANNA LEASK:
How often do you think about Amber-Lee and what happened to her?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
All the time, it's something that will never go away...

ANNA LEASK:
Is it a sadness, is it anger? What are your feelings these days?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
All of the above -frustration we've never been able to say our actual goodbyes, put her to rest.

It's just empty. It's like, did it happen? We've just never had any answers.

ANNA LEASK:
You're the oldest of all the kids, what's it been like seeing the impact this has had on your mum and other members of your family over the years?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
It's been very rough at times… very rough.

Every year you're quite down, seeing mum torn all the time, that can be quite hard too.

ANNA LEASK:
So someone out there knows what has happened to Amber-Lee and has kept it a secret for 25 years. What do you think of that?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
It's sickening. She was the innocent victim in this and how someone can do that to such a young girl, it's horrible.

ANNA LEASK:
And what would your message be to the person that's taken Amber-Lee or someone who might know and has kept it quiet for all of these years?

What would you like to say to them?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
That's not even the issue for me, now, after 25 years, it's just wanting to put her to rest, say goodbye…

ANNA LEASK:
What would it mean to you to bring Amber-Lee home finally?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
I think it would lift the world off your shoulders, you know?

Feel like you've got that piece of the family back... it would probably change a lot of things.

ANNA LEASK:
And has it always felt like there's been someone missing - a piece of your family, you've felt broken?

HARLEY CRUICKSHANK:
Oh yeah, it's constant reminders, it's not something you forget. You always have that wonder of um, how she would have been like...

Danny Cruickshank was just 7-months old when Amber-Lee vanished.

He was asleep at the time she disappeared.

He's grown up more in her shadow than her other siblings.

He is now 25, every birthday marking another year without Amber-Lee.

Danny's staunch, but when he starts talking about the sister he never got a chance to know, you can tell he feels so much pain.

DANNY CRUICKSHANK
It sucks knowing that you had a sister but - where is she?

Every year, every Christmas, there's always a spot with her name on the tree.

There's always something missing and it sucks.

Watching mum go through what she has to go through every year, every time we get interviewed or stuff goes on TV - it does suck, it impacts on your life hard out.

It's hard. All these unsolved questions, unanswered questions - what happened to her, where did she go?

Is she alive? Is she dead?

You have to relive it, every birthday... and just watching the pain you see your loved ones go through as well.

Words can't describe the way I feel.

There's so much anger there, so much pain, frustration.

Why should a two-and-a-half-year-old girl lose her life or disappear? What did she do wrong?

No one deserves that, I wouldn't wish that upon anyone, for mum, or for her.

It's not easy for anyone, and I couldn't imagine the pain of what mum goes through, even Amber's dad... the whole family.

Like his mum, Danny has Amber-Lee's portrait tattooed on his skin.

Nicola's is on her calf, Danny's on his right arm.

He got it when he was 16, he'd been wanting to do it for years, and it's a constant reminder that Amber-Lee is part of his family - part of him.

He doesn't want to forget her.

The last photo of Amber-Lee, taken two days before she vanished. She is with her mother and brothers Harley (R) and baby Danny.
The last photo of Amber-Lee, taken two days before she vanished. She is with her mother and brothers Harley (R) and baby Danny.
ANNA LEASK:
And what would it mean to you to bring Amber-Lee home?

DANNY CRUICKSHANK:
It would mean... it would be life changing, just to have the closure for the family, for us, for everyone... just need to bring her home.

ANNA LEASK:
Did you ever think it would be 25 years with no answers and no Amber-Lee?

DANNY CRUICKSHANK:
No, I thought something would have come up by now. I remember I woke up to a phone call, I was probably about 18, 19, saying that a helicopter's coming to get us because they'd found bones down in Kingston.

And then I think I ran all the way from South Brighton pretty much nearly all the way to Queenspark and then found out it was a false alarm, it was sheep bones.

It just rips your heart out, like, you lose all hope again, you get given hope and it's just taken away...

ANNA LEASK:
How do you live with this?

DANNY CRUICKSHANK
I have to. We all have to, you know?

It's just hard... time doesn't heal but it makes it easier.

You learn to live day by day, you know? And you hope that one day we'll get the answers, or one day she'll turn up - there's always hope.

Someone knows. How could a two-and-a-half-year-old just disappear?

Someone knows something and it disgusts me that someone's holding the secret.... like, f***, what kind of monster could do that?

And then to cover it up as well, it's 25 years, it's about time she came home.

If someone knows something they need to say... someone needs to do something about it. It's about time.

Grow some nuts, you know? Help bring her home - don't be a coward your whole life.

Enough is enough, it's time for answers, man up.

Then, there's Jacob.

He was born a few years after Amber-Lee went missing - but that hasn't stopped him from feeling it.

As a youngster he had enough to deal with – Nicola's drug problems, her time in jail - so he blocked out Amber-Lee.

But as he got older he started to understand, started to ask questions.

JACOB CRUICKSHANK:
Well, to be honest in my younger years it didn't affect me so much.

I mean, a lot of what affected my family affected me, but I didn't so much understand the concept.

It's more been the last 10 years that I've really understood, you know?

It's pretty heart-wrenching.

ANNA LEASK:
How often do you think about Amber-Lee?

JACOB CRUICKSHANK:
Well, it's not something you can block out, it's not something you try to think about.... but quite a lot.

ANNA LEASK:
Do you think people realise what your family's been through, losing Amber?

JACOB CRUICKSHANK:
I don't think many people take it into consideration.

But yeah, there's a few people out there who know.

ANNA LEASK:
It's been really hard for you, hasn't it?

JACOB CRUICKSHANK:
Yeah, definitely.

ANNA LEASK:
What would you like to see happen?

JACOB CRUICKSHANK:
Justice, and just the comfort of bringing her home.

ANNA LEASK:
What would it mean to you personally to have Amber-Lee brought home?

JACOB CRUICKSHANK:
It would mean a for me, for the family you know? And for me.

It's just.... yeah.... not something that should have been done.

Katrina Atariki, a friend of Nicola Cruickshank who used to look after Amber-Lee. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott
Katrina Atariki, a friend of Nicola Cruickshank who used to look after Amber-Lee. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott

Nicola's close friend Katrina Atariki is haunted by Amber-Lee and finds herself thinking of the little girl every day.

She carries a photo of the toddler everywhere she goes - Amber-Lee not long before she vanished holding baby Danny on an armchair.

Amber-Lee has a serious face - you can tell she wasn't happy about having to sit still for the camera.

Atariki loves that photo, creased and tatty around the edges from years of being pulled out and gazed upon.

ANNA LEASK:
Are you angry she's been robbed of everything as well?

KATRINA ATARIKI:
Yeah.You think 'oh you're 16, you can get your driver's licence'. The five-year-old birthday - oh everything, the 3rd birthday, 4th birthday, 5th birthday, 6th birthday...

And then I think, if I feel like this.... how the heck does Nicky feel?

It's her daughter, so if I feel this sh*t she must feel even sh*tter.

Poor wee girl lying somewhere by herself.

You know, she would have been frickin freaking out to go through that by herself…

I really hope in my heart that something happens from it, finally, soon, that would be good.

Detective Sergeant John Kean says Amber-Lee's case, dubbed Operation Oliver, is active and every lead is followed up.

He says it's impossible to tell Nicola about every move that's made - mainly because he doesn't want to get her hopes up only to have to let her down again.

That's happened a few times over the years, Nicola getting her hopes up.

It happened as recently as last week.

Just as we were putting the finishing touches on this podcast, Nicola dropped a bombshell.

Kean had been in touch, a shoe had been found in Kingston, a child's shoe.

Was it was one of the little blue sneakers Amber-Lee was wearing when she vanished.

Like every call she's had from police about potential evidence, it caused Nicola's heart to skip a beat.

She hoped, desperately, it would signal the start of something, the end of the mystery, the key to finding Amber-Lee.

The shoe was buried in the dirt at Athol, 30km from where her little girl was last seen.

The person who found it contacted police, aware of Amber-Lee's case and the fact that crucial evidence had eluded authorities for decades.

The shoe was 15cm long, it seemed a little too big for Amber-Lee.

But Kean had to have it ruled out officially and the only way to do that was to send a photograph of it to Nicola.

He emailed a photograph of it to Nicola on what would have been the 25th anniversary of Amber-Lee going missing.

The timing was unfortunate, but it had to be done.

The shoe wasn't familiar to Nicola, it wasn't what she remembered Amber-Lee wearing.

Her hopes were dashed, again.

There have been several false starts over the years, mostly bones being found in and around the lake.

Each discovery has been crushing for Nicola and frustrating for police.

Kean would like nothing more than to solve this case, and has assured me that Amber-Lee will never be forgotten.

ANNA LEASK:
How hard are cold cases to solve? This has been 25 years now, is that frustrating for you and your team?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
Well it's frustrating in the fact that really, we would just love to go to Nicky and give her the answers that she deserves.

At that end it's very frustrating. But there must be someone out there that knows, there has to be someone that knows.

ANNA LEASK:
Do you think you've spoken to the person that knows?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
Possibly. But I don't know... I don't know.

ANNA LEASK:
Based on all the evidence and information you've had over the years, whether it's been put out to the public or withheld by police, what do personally think has happened to Amber-Lee?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
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.

ANNA LEASK:
Do you think Amber-Lee will ever be found and Nicky will get those answers she's so desperate for?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
I certainly hope so, desperately so.

It's not something we're ever going to push to one side

ANNA LEASK:
Do you believe you have information that could lead to an arrest eventually or does that information still need to come to you from the public?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
It still needs to come to us from the public.

The public hold the key - someone out there holds the key to this, it's as simple as that.

Someone knows.

ANNA LEASK:
What would you say to that someone if they're listening to this podcast?

What would you say to the person who's taken Amber-Lee?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN:
They have to come forward to the police.

I'm not sure how anybody could live with that for 25 years and know what they know.

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.

Warwick Walker, the first detective to run Amber-Lee's case, left the police more than 20 years ago.

He now works in finance in Wellington – worlds away from the scene of the alleged crime.

But Amber-Lee, a little girl he never met, is often on his mind.

RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
It's the only major case from my career unsolved where at least somebody hasn't been held to account.

There's nobody even been put in front of a court about it.

So yeah, that bugs me, keeps me thinking about it.

ANNA LEASK:
Did you ever think that you'd get to 25 years (cut) and not have answers?

RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
No… the most baffling case that I worked on in my 20-plus years in the police.

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.

ANNA LEASK:
Does it frustrate you knowing that there is one, maybe more people out there who know exactly what's happened to Amber-Lee, where she is, and they've put Nicky through that for quarter of a century?

RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
It's not about my frustration, it's a sadness for Nicky and James. Where's her little girl?

ANNA LEASK:
What could make that person, or someone who knows, come forward after such a long time.

RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
Based on my experience, people have changing loyalties over the years.

You'll know in your own situation there'll be people in life who you may have been associated with or friendly with in the past who have then done something to p*ss you off and at that stage you may not feel the same about that person, so some things you might know about that person that you wouldn't have necessarily said something about - you might be only too vocal about that now.

That is something which does happen in criminal cases too because people who may have been close and may have known, and then over the years may no longer have those same loyalties or relationship with the people who are involved and now be prepared anonymously or quite openly to give some information that could help I guess firstly solve where Amber-Lee is, if nothing else, where is her body to bring some closure for James and Nicky.

And if it was only that, that would be wonderful.

But I also believe that it somebody's involved, they need to be held to account. Why shouldn't they be held to account for taking the life of a young child?

As a parent I guess I'm just imagining what that would be like for me.

It would be some closure to be able to go and at least bury your child.

Nicola Cruickshank near where Amber-Lee as last seen in 1992. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott
Nicola Cruickshank near where Amber-Lee as last seen in 1992. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott

Nicola has kept every clipping, article, letter, card and photograph relating to Amber-Lee in a briefcase.

Cards sent when she was born, others when she went missing and faded photographs - Amber-Lee's first baby photo, on her beloved trike, with Harley and her cake on her first birthday.

And the last photo ever taken of Amber-Lee - two days before she vanished, with her brothers and mum on the front porch of a mate's place.

Apart from memories it's the last image Nicola will ever have of her girl, the last family photo before they were torn apart forever.

She took us through the briefcase.

It was the first time she'd been in it for a decade - and the first time Harley had ever looked at the contents.

Harley desperately wants to remember Amber-Lee.

He's finally ready to face the facts of her disappearance, something he blocked out for years as he focused his worries on his mother and younger brothers.

He had to grow up quickly, and that's something Nicola is only just starting to hear about.

She hates that someone out there could be responsible for all of this - all of this haunting and heartache.

Every time I've interviewed Nicola there have been tears.

This process has been really hard on her and there have been times I have felt truly awful, like I'm interrogating her, intruding on her life.

I worry about her - she has done so well in the last few years to create a stable life for her and her family and I don't want anything to push her backwards.

I told her this and her reply was simple - "this has to be done".

She wants answers and she will go over and over that day in 1992 until her last breathe in the hope that it will help her find out what happened.

NICOLA CRUICKSHANK:
I'm putting myself back out there again, back in the limelight and I can only just imagine what's going to come out and what people are going to say over this.

But at the end of the day I've got nothing to hide.

Judge me - I don't care.

This is me, now - that was me, back then. This happened - maybe because of the consequences of my actions? I don't know.

She had her whole life ahead of her. She was innocent - innocent.

She had so much going for her…

There's cases all over New Zealand of people that are missing and never been found because of foul play.

Unfortunately there's people out there that are like that, they've got no qualms in taking someone's life, you know, they don't have conscious or maybe they do have a conscious and maybe they can live with it. I don't know, I know I can't.

I have suffered enough, my family has suffered enough, my friends have suffered enough.

If you wanted to get a message across you got it across loud and clear - we're still paying the price.

But please, let her come home, just tell us where she is - I don't care if it's anonymous.

I don't want any so-called maps leading to her body, I want evidence, pure evidence this is where she is, this is where you'll find her, take her home, give her the burial that she deserves, the send-off that she deserves.

Put an end to this, give me and my family and friends some closure you know?

This nightmare has gone on long enough - 25 years, it has gone on long enough.

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.

I mean, I just want an end to this.

I don't want to have to live this over and over and over again, which I do, simply because I want some answers, I want her to come home, I want to put it to rest you know?

I want a place to be able to go and visit and know that's where my baby lies - not come to Kingston, visit her memorial, a plaque and a tree that we planted in her memory, because all it brings back is that fateful day when she was taken.

At the end of the day I want her.

F*** the justice side of it - I don't care.

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 a** 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.

If you are listening to this podcast and you know what happened to Amber-Lee - if you hurt her by accident, if you took her, if you know who did - please come forward.

At the very least let police know anonymously where her body can be found.

You may have information you don't think is important or relevant to the investigation, but it could be the key to finding Amber-Lee - maybe even bringing her killer to justice.

If she was your daughter, sister, niece – wouldn't you want that?

Please, if you know anything just make that call.

Help bring Amber-Lee home.

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.