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 cold case in a bid to generate some answers for the 2-year-old's family.

In October, to mark the 25th anniversary of Amber-Lee's disappearance, the Herald released Chasing Ghosts, a six-part podcast series, news feature and mini-documentary about the case — one of New Zealand's most baffling mysteries.

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It was our first true crime podcast.

This week, we are publishing the full transcript — more than 30,000 words — in a bid to give this case more publicity.

We want to bring Amber-Lee home.

Can you help?

EPISODE FIVE: PERSONS OF INTEREST

When Amber-Lee Cruickshank went missing in October 1992, initially the most likely conclusion was that she had drowned in Lake Wakatipu.

Authorities also considered whether she'd wandered into the bush around Kingston and become lost, or fallen into an old mining hole and died.

But after exhaustive land and water searches turned up no sign of the little girl, police started move down a different track — foul play.

Someone had harmed, taken or killed Amber-Lee.

In the previous episode of Chasing Ghosts we looked at a man named Ken Barrett.

iHeartRadio or download the episodes via iTunes.

Amber-Lee's mother, Nicola Cruickshank, decided Barrett was the prime suspect a decade ago.

She focused on him because of psychic readings about her daughter's fate, but police particularly say there is no evidence whatsoever linking Barrett to the case.

So who did take Amber-Lee ?

Let's go back to October 17, 1992 — a spring Saturday in Kingston near the boundary of Southland and Otago.

It was a sunny day and people were out enjoying the spring weather.

Amber-Lee's stepfather, James Gill, had brought the family to town so they could visit his mate Richard Dette.

Dette took people out for an afternoon boat ride, then he hosted an early evening barbecue at his house, a few metres from the lakefront.

Back then, Kingston had some permanent residents, but most of the houses were holiday homes.

When police started investigating foul play, everyone in town that day was a suspect.

Police were eventually able to list every person who owned property there and where they were that weekend.

They also tracked everyone who was at the lake, the pub, or just passing through Kingston.

They soon concluded that if someone had taken Amber-Lee, it had to be someone close to her — someone with the opportunity, someone she wouldn't be frightened of, someone she knew.

The first officer in charge of the case, Warwick Walker, said police narrowed their focus to those who were around the house Amber-Lee was staying at when she vanished, specifically, the group who were at the barbecue.

Photos of Amber-Lee Cruickshank, 2, disappeared from the township Kingston on the southern shore of Lake Wakatipu in 1992. Photo / Mike Scott.
Photos of Amber-Lee Cruickshank, 2, disappeared from the township Kingston on the southern shore of Lake Wakatipu in 1992. Photo / Mike Scott.
RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER
You always look close first, then knowing that she wasn't in the lake and if we accepted that she hadn't stumbled off and not been found by search and rescue, then you're going to look at that close group — so yes, James, Nicky, the people whose house it was and people that we knew had been in and around that group involved in the waterskiing and the picnic-type atmosphere that was going on.

They became, really, a key focus because, you know, it came down to who was going to take away a little 2-year-old girl.

I wanted to know whether Nicola Cruickshank and her then partner, James Gill, were considered suspects, 25 years after Amber-Lee's disappearance.

I asked the current officer in charge of the case, Detective Sergeant John Kean.

ANNA LEASK
And of the people at the house with her, her parents and the friends who were in Kingston that day, who have you ruled out?

Has mum been ruled out? Has James been ruled out?

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN KEAN
Well, it's very difficult to say you can conclusively rule a person out that was there at the time Amber-Lee went missing.

But the police are satisfied, as best we can be, that Nicky and James have got no involvement in the disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshank.

So, who else was there?

The barbecue was hosted by Richard Dette and his partner, Belinda Sayer.

Dette was with Amber-Lee's stepfather James when she went missing.

Sayer had driven to a mate's house around the corner to do laundry.

She saw Amber-Lee standing near the driveway as she left the property. It was the last confirmed sighting of the child.

Also present was local man Alister Angus and his 14-year-old son, Damian.

The pair had also been out on the boat with Amber-Lee and the others earlier in the day.

Nicola remembers another local man at the barbecue, and that's corroborated by the police timeline.

Other people were milling about the lakefront and in town that evening.

Before we go, it's vital to mention that no one has ever been charged in relation to Amber-Lee's disappearance.

We tried to speak to Richard Dette many times — we visited his Bluff home, called and text messaged him but he didn't respond.

As we heard in episode one, Dette was known to police. That could be the reason for his reluctance to talk. Or perhaps he's just fed up with the case.

Sayer died in 2015.

Police believe she told them everything she knew before she passed.

In the early days of their investigation, police were particularly interested in one person at the barbecue — young Damian Angus.

Walker, now retired from the police for 20 years, remembers how that happened.

WARWICK WALKER
There was a young teenager who was down in among that group.

From talking to people within the group who were there and observing what was going on, they indicated that he seemed to have, he seemed to show an unusual interest in Amber-Lee.

Now, by that I mean that normally you're not going to get teenage boys who are going to want to spend time with 2-year-old kids ...

They just sort of said that he had spent some time and showed some interest in her, and I guess given what we knew about that particular individual, that just sort of seemed unusual.

A few people commented on that, that it was unusual and yeah, we thought it was unusual and he did become a person of interest for us.

Walker told us that Damian Angus was interviewed three times and changed his story about where he was when Amber-Lee vanished.

Like Dette, he was also known to police.

To be absolutely clear, Angus has never been charged in relation to Amber-Lee Cruickshank.

Damian Angus was 14 years old when police attention focused on him after the disappearance of 2 year old Amber-Lee 25 years ago. Photo / supplied
Damian Angus was 14 years old when police attention focused on him after the disappearance of 2 year old Amber-Lee 25 years ago. Photo / supplied
WARWICK WALKER
The young man that we're talking about said that he had gone off (to) one place when clearly we found out he'd been somewhere else.

ANNA LEASK
Looking at this young person, what did police do to look into him and see if there was any way he could've taken Amber-Lee? How closely was he looked at after she went missing?

WARWICK WALKER
Oh — very, very closely.

So he was interviewed a number of times, his place searched, a caravan that we knew he access to that was away from the house — that was searched both physically and scientifically.

There was some surveillance on him to see where he went and the sorts of things that he was up to.

So yeah, there was quite an intense focus on where he had been.

He didn't have a driver's licence but he had access to a number of vehicles that he used frequently so we looked at those vehicles, we looked at where they might have gone.

So yeah, there was a lot of scrutiny of him.

ANNA LEASK
More so than anyone else that was close to Amber-Lee that day?

WARWICK WALKER
Well, yes, certainly in the time that I was involved in the file which was for a year afterwards. There was far more time spent looking at him than anyone else.

Now that doesn't mean to say we didn't spend a lot of time looking at others — we did. But in terms of ranking of suspects, if somebody has taken Amber-Lee, he was the number one suspect.

ANNA LEASK
Given he was young at the time, could he have done something to Amber-Lee and hidden her?

Would he have needed help?

WARWICK WALKER
Would he have needed help? Look, no.

She's a small little 2-year-old child. He was 13 or 14 at that stage.

Physically he would not have needed help to walk off with her, carry her off, do whatever.

So no, he wouldn't have needed help to do that.

Plus if in fact he's picked her up and taken her somewhere, he did have access to vehicles to do that.

That doesn't mean to say he didn't have help, if in fact he has done something with her.

So did we look at that angle, yes we did. But that hasn't taken us anywhere thus far.

Because the case is active, Detective Sergeant John Kean has to be careful about what he says about possible suspects.

But he says no one who was in Kingston that day, particularly those involved with the boating and barbecue, has been formally ruled out.

And, he says, some people are of more interest than others.

JOHN KEAN
I'm not certain there's someone at the top of the list but there are people that we, the police, have never been totally satisfied (about).

That might just be by their very nature, or their dealings with the police haven't been that positive.

There's not a number one suspect as such.

Kean says Angus changed his story about seeing Amber-Lee the night she disappeared.

In one interview he said he hadn't seen the little girl.

In another, he had.

Kean described Angus' change of story as "conflicting and disturbing".

I decided to track down Angus and see if he would speak to me about that day.

He has never spoken publicly about Amber-Lee, so I wasn't holding my breath.

I sent him a message on Facebook explaining what I was working on and why I wanted to interview him.

He responded about 24 hours later — simply saying "no thanks".

I asked again, telling him it was his chance to clear his name.

He didn't reply so I decided to go and knock on his door.

After a few years living in North Canterbury, Angus moved back to Southland where he works cutting and selling firewood.

He lives with his three teenage children in a rental property on a sleepy, dead-end street.

Herald video journalist Mike Scott and I pulled up outside his house at about 8.30 on a Saturday morning.

We walked up the potholed driveway towards the front door.

Before I could knock, it opened, and out came a man with a long red beard, cigarette in hand — Damian Angus.

Initially, he was reluctant to speak.

He said he didn't want to talk about Amber-Lee, that police harassed him for years and that he didn't want any more attention.

At that point, I was convinced our trip south had been a big waste of time.

And then, Angus started to talk.

He didn't want to be recorded but we spoke to him for about 20 minutes.

He explained that the night Amber-Lee went missing dogs tracked her scent to a creek that flows into Lake Wakatipu.

It was in flood, he said, because of the spring thaw, and a toddler wouldn't have survived if they'd fallen in.

It is his firm belief, and always has been, that Amber-Lee ended up in the water and drowned.

Angus told us that Kingston was a small town where everyone knew everyone — curtain tuggers was the description he gave for the locals.

He said that if something had happened to Amber-Lee, someone would know.

Likewise, if a stranger had come into town in a strange vehicle and taken Amber-Lee, someone would have seen something.

Angus also believes that the divers didn't go out far enough when they searched Lake Wakatipu.

He's sure that if they'd pushed out further they would have found Amber-Lee's body.

I tell him that police are 100 per cent confident that she's not in the lake and they're pretty certain she was taken.

And I tell him that police haven't ruled him out of the investigation.

I ask him straight up — did you hurt, take or kill Amber-Lee?

He says no, quickly.

He's adamant, defiant even.

His way of speaking is pretty gruff, he's a typical country bloke and he doesn't mince words.

He tells me he was babysitting when Amber-Lee went missing and I press him on that, asking him specifically what he was up to at the time.

The conversation then takes an uncomfortable turn.

Angus tenses up, glares at me, and after a couple of seconds says, "What do you mean, where was I?"

I tell him he'd already said he was babysitting so I just wanted to know more about that.

He talks about mowing some lawns that day, then walking through a paddock with someone named Jeremy and Belinda Sayer pulling up in a car and asking if they had seen Amber-Lee.

Angus tells me the last time he saw the girl was when he helped her off the boat earlier in the afternoon.

He says he's angry at any suggestion that he's a suspect.

Then he heads back into his house, and we leave.

Walker talked about the interviews Angus gave to police.

I wanted to know what he said, so I went back to the current officer in charge, Detective Sergeant John Kean.

He explained that Angus had been interviewed three times — on October 19 and 12 December 1992 and in early June the following year.

JOHN KEAN
He's given different versions of events of his actions and movements around the time that Amber-Lee went missing.

I won't disclose the specifics of what he actually said but he had just in general terms gave different versions of where he was and what he saw around the time leading up to and the time after Amber-Lee disappeared.

But he was certainly involved or had knowledge of the search phase later that evening.

ANNA LEASK
Now, he's told us that he was babysitting when Amber-Lee went missing.

Is that what he's told police in his most recent explanation?

JOHN KEAN
No.

ANNA LEASK
Is it close to what he's told you or is it a complete different story?

JOHN KEAN
No. It's not.

I think you have to put in mind that, I'm not sure when you spoke to him but this incident was 25 years ago and while he gave differing versions he was a 14-year-old boy that was being spoken to by police.

So, I'm not sure why he thinks he was babysitting now, but at the time that was never mentioned so I don't know why he would say ... he may have thought he was babysitting.

ANNA LEASK
He's told us that he was interrogated to the point that he felt it would be easier to confess and just say he did it. Was there ever, when you were watching that interview, did you ever think he was about to go that way?

JOHN KEAN
In fairness, it was a long interview and I think at the end, throughout the interview, they just wanted to get the truth from Damian and if he was involved to explain why whatever had happened had happened.

But he didn't further that at all.

The difficulty is, he's been interviewed three times. He's given explanations of his movements of that day and that have been checked or clarified as best can be. Yes they are different to some degree but that's where it sits.

ANNA LEASK
He's adamant that Amber-Lee's wandered down to a stream, fallen in and drowned.

He said that stream was flooded at the time and divers just didn't search far enough.

What do you think about that?

JOHN KEAN
That's not correct.

No, that's ... no. I explained in the previous interview that no, if Amber-Lee had gone into the water she would have been found either on that night or the following day.

And that's all to do with gases in bodies and bodies rise and bodies sink. But she would have been found.

Also, there was a man who was about 100m from shore in his rowboat fishing — he saw nothing, he saw no one.

I know the stream he's referring to and it was spring thaw and it was in flood — but no, that's not a possibility.

The Kingston house Amber-Lee was last seen at is at bottom right with Lake Wakatipu on the left. Photo / Mike Scott.
The Kingston house Amber-Lee was last seen at is at bottom right with Lake Wakatipu on the left. Photo / Mike Scott.

In a Facebook message a couple of weeks after we spoke Angus said he still did not want to be recorded for the podcast.

But he did want to say something:

DAMIAN ANGUS FACEBOOK MESSAGE
I hope something comes of it if she isn't in the lake and something else happened to her would be good for her mum to have closer and if someone did something to Amber I'd like to know because I'd f***** have something to say to him or her after all the s*** this has caused a lot of people.

Remember that police said Damian Angus was at the barbecue with his father, Alister.

We wanted to speak to him too, but he declined and sent me a Facebook message.

ALISTER ANGUS FACEBOOK MESSAGE
Hi Anna,

I believe the unexciting but obvious conclusion that she fell in the lake and disappeared, as have four or five people before her and a couple since.

That's why there never has been, and never will be, any clues regarding the "murder mystery".

The media dining out on the poor wee bugger's disappearance is ugly in the extreme and I won't be part of it.

If it's a crime you're looking for perhaps you need to look at the grandmother and Mother last week who were so busy getting sh**faced that their baby died, some good parallels to work with there I think.

Regards Al.

I went back to him and explained that police were sure that Amber-Lee did not drown in the lake.

I asked him to reconsider speaking to me.

I told him I'd spoken with his son and wanted to get his version of events about that fateful day too. He did not respond.

Until there is concrete evidence police cannot and will not make an arrest in this case.

They still get the occasional lead or tip about Amber-Lee and follow each up as best they can — but to date nothing has given them enough to close in on the person or people responsible for her disappearance.

Walker and Kean both say at least one person out there knows what happened.

It's a hell of a secret to keep for 25 years.

UP NEXT

In the final episode of Chasing Ghosts: It's been 25 years since Amber-Lee went missing. What would it mean for her family to finally bring her 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.