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'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.
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 ONE - 17.10.92
A missing girl and a grieving mother.
A dark underbelly of gangs, drugs and crime.
Theories, suspects and 25 years without answers.
In Chasing Ghosts we investigate the disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshank.
Amber-Lee was last seen on the evening of October 17, 1992.
The 2 and a half year old vanished from Kingston, a small town at the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu, where Otago meets Southland.
Every minute she's been gone has been torture for her mother, Nicola Cruickshank.
Heartbreaking, not to have any answers still.
It's something I've lived through for the last 25 years, day in, day out always wondering what went wrong that day and what happened and was there anything I could have done to change that.
I'm Anna Leask.
I've been a crime reporter for more than a decade and have always been fascinated by cold cases.
I was only nine when Amber-Lee went missing, but I remember clearly seeing her little face in the news.
I have often wondered how, in a place as tiny as Kingston, she could vanish without a trace.
The last time Nicola saw her daughter, the blonde-haired blue-eyed girl was on the front porch of a mate's place.
A few minutes later Amber-Lee was seen by another woman at the house, standing in the driveway.
And then, she was gone, never to be seen again.
In this first episode of Chasing Ghosts we relive the day Amber-Lee disappeared and the immediate aftermath.
Desperate for answers, Nicola agreed to return to Kingston with me.
On a bitterly cold July day we drove there with her best mate Tarns and Herald video journalist Mike Scott.
We started talking about Amber-Lee as we drove to Kingston - a road Nicola has driven more times than she can remember.
To lose a child and not know what or how or where that child is, it's just pain that you can't explain. It's the emptiness....
But to be able to visit that child's grave site and know how that child died and to be able to visit - it's closure.
It's not closure coming here, every time I come here and I turn down this straight… wow…. 17th of October 1992, it's the same road I travelled.
Only, disaster.... it's just horrible.
You look at the mountains and it's such a beautiful place to have something ripped away from you so... yeah, it is, it's raw, it hurts, my guts is churning.
I always get nervous.
You look around and you see how much has changed in the 25 years.
I mean, my first port of call every time I get here is the plaque that we planted a couple of months after she had disappeared after going out every day searching for hours and hours on end - to no avail.
I mean, this is all I've got to come and visit, and that's why we planted an Amber Liquid tree in her name.
We're just coming into Kingston now.
It's a pretty miserable day, a bit drizzly, very different to when you were here with Amber-Lee in 1992 I imagine?
It would have been a bit warmer, a bit sunnier?
It's all changed now, the whole place has changed...
[TAKES A DEEP BREATH]
I always take a deep breath when I come here... It's just like [ANOTHER DEEP BREATH] here we go again.
I miss her, I miss her heaps.
You'd take anything now, wouldn't you?
Yeah [CRIES SOFTLY]... be nice to have an end to this, not to relive it all the time - because that's what you're doing, you're reliving it, every time you come to Kingston...
It's hard yakka. But hey of anything I've ever wished for in this life, in the last 25 years, it's just to have my girl home...
Amber-Lee is one of 385 New Zealanders listed as missing since 1939.
174 cases are listed as unexplained.
24 are considered homicides.
Only three involve children.
Amber-Lee is the most recent.
Betty Wharton was three years old when she disappeared in 1964 and police have only recently referred her case to the coroner.
And Auckland boy Peter Boland went missing near Gisborne in 1957 while on a school holiday visit to a farm.
As in Amber-Lee Cruickshank's case, extensive searches have failed to turn up any sign of the girl.
The day Amber-Lee vanished her family were moving.
Nicola and her then-partner James Gill hadn't had an easy life.
They were drug users, involved with gangs and Nicola had dabbled in sex work.
In mid-1992 they decided they had to ditch that lifestyle.
They sold their home at Otautau - about 50km north-west of Invercargill - and bought a house bus.
They planned to leave everything behind and start fresh with their three kids on the West Coast.
They spent their last night together as a family parked by a local river.
Nicola's eldest son Harley was with them that night.
He was going to stay with a family friend, so he could complete the school year before joining Nicola, James, Amber-Lee and Danny, who was 7 months old, on the Coast.
They dropped Harley off the next morning, and headed north towards Kingston.
James decided they'd stop there to see his mate Richard Dette who lived in a lakefront house.
He had a broken arm after falling off a horse, but was still able to drive the bus.
It was an 80-minute journey and the family stopped at Mossburn for an ice cream.
Amber-Lee loved ice cream.
About 15 minutes out of Kingston, a bike tied to the bus smashed through the back window.
The family didn't know it then, but that incident would change the course of their lives - forever.
Nicola, James and the kids reached Dette's crib in the afternoon.
They decided to stay the night there so they could get the bus window fixed.
Amber-Lee and baby Danny were asleep when they pulled up at the simple wooden bach-style home about 50m from the water's edge.
It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and people were out on Lake Wakatipu in boats, water skiing, swimming and fishing.
Amber-Lee was asleep when they arrived.
But when she woke up Nicola changed her and took her down to the water for a paddle.
The little girl hated water – she was well known for that – and there was no way she was going in.
But when Dette got his boat out Nicola convinced the toddler to go for a ride.
My fondest memory is being on the boat and her sitting on my knee just laughing.
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 red cheeks....
After the boating the group decided to have a barbecue.
They set up out the front of Dette's and a couple of other locals joined them.
The adults chatted and laughed, Amber-Lee played.
No one could have imagined what would happen next.
They'd finished eating and the adults dispersed to tidy up.
My 7-month-old was in one of those jolly jumpers in the doorstep. Amber-Lee was at the front of the house, she had a glass of Coke, I remember that thinking she shouldn't have that because she won't be going to sleep any time soon with the sugar.
And, that's the last time I remember seeing Amber-Lee...
James and Dette headed to the house bus and started to clean up the glass.
Dette's partner Belinda Sayer had a shower, then drove to a friend's house nearby to do some washing.
As she pulled out of the driveway she saw Amber-Lee – and that would be the last confirmed sighting of the child.
Dette was growing poppies in his back garden. They were hidden under trees and in the long overgrown grass.
Nicola was nominated to go back and bleed them - to extract the opium so the group could get high.
She thought Amber-Lee was with James. He thought the little girl was with Nicola.
Nicola was alone out the back, but at one stage she heard a noise.
She thought it might be James or Dette and she stopped and stood up.
She couldn't see anyone; so she called out, asked who was there.
There was no response.
She saw no movement, so she went back to the poppies.
We'll come back to this moment later in the series – it could be hugely significant to the case.
But for now we want to stick to the timeline, to cover off everything that happened on the day Amber-Lee vanished.
Eventually, James came out the back to see how Nicola was going.
Then all hell broke loose.
It was probably about half an hour, 45 minutes later James came to see how I was getting on and I said it was a waste of bloody time and I was sick of it and 'what's Amber doing'.
He said 'I think she's inside watching TV' and I said 'well here, you can do it' and off I went to have a look and that's when I discovered that Amber wasn't inside watching TV.....
I called for her and there was just nothing.
So I started to panic, running around yelling out her name, saying 'Amber's gone'.
Everybody starting looking, started door knocking and then the alarm was raised that night.
I was just frantic. I was running all round this place. I ran down to the park thinking she may have gone there.
I thought maybe she's gone down to the boat yard because we'd been out in the boat and she was so happy about that, she was ecstatic about it.
I can't say Amber wasn't a runner because she had done a runner on me a couple of times to the park - a lot of people know with their own children, it's the same.
Kids can just vanish, bang, like that. I've watched it.
At 9.12pm Nicola called 111.
Police and Search and Rescue volunteers converged on Kingston.
Locals helped them comb the area – they fanned out through the town and into the bush, they looked on, in and around the water.
As news of Amber-Lee's disappearance spread, friends and family, including her biological father, raced to Kingston to help.
Well, most people who were alerted to a little girl being missing searched through the night.
I was to stay at the property, sitting in anguish waiting and waiting for word.
The next day a search was coordinated at 8 o'clock in the morning and that was on the Sunday. That was coordinated from the pub down the road.
Everybody was deployed out a certain radius and then the search was called off at 5pm that day and then Monday, the same again and at 5pm the search was called off, presumed drowned in the lake - and that was it.
There was no more searching cos they all presumed she was in the lake.
Dette was known to police, so when the 111 call came in officers flagged it with Warwick Walker, a detective sergeant based in Queenstown.
It's pretty standard for detectives or senior officers to be briefed on an incident if people known to police are involved in any way.
Walker headed to Kingston the next day to find the search for Amber-Lee in full swing.
RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
They were doing extensive ground searches, they'd been out on the lake in boats and canoes, I believe some local divers had been called in - local scuba divers called in to go and have a look around various parts of the lake.
I believed right at that stage that yeah, she had probably just gone missing.
So other than we had some interest in the people who were in and around, there was nothign of a crimnal nature at that stage, in that first 48 hours.
How did you find Nicky and James that day when you spoke with them?
RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
It was strange.
It was a mixture of very, very - particularly from Nicky - very, very emotional as you would expect the mother of a young child who's gone missing, very, very upset, very wound up.
But also there was some guardedness going on in the background.
I didn't know Nicky and James but I knew the people where they were staying and I figured hey, look, if that's the association there there's probably been some past history with the police and that may just be standoffish because they didn't like the police - albeit that we became a necessary part of their lives at that stage looking for Amber-Lee.
So yeah, it was emotionally upset, but guarded at the same time.
He had to travel to Police College near Wellington the next morning and expected to be away for about three weeks.
Before he left, he briefed a detective from Invercargill who was relieving him.
He never imagined that when he returned, Amber-Lee would still be missing.
RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
The search and rescue people down there are pretty damn good at what they do, so I was surprised that she hadn't been found.
However, you've got a big body of water surrounded by very dense bush and I believe that there are some old mining holes around that area, albeit that I'd been told that they'd been searched.
So I then started reading through the file in detail in terms of what had been done because I was fairly determined that we needed to find Amber-Lee.
Probably after that amount of time she was going to be dead but you know, we had to find Amber-Lee and we had to find her for the family.
Walker took me through the two searches, step by step.
RETIRED DETECTIVE WARWICK WALKER:
So, the initial search on the day she went missing was, you let residents know there's a little girl missing, can you go and look in your house, can you look under the bed.
The following day I believe the search and rescue people actually went in and looked under and in houses themselves.
There were some houses that were shut up so we had to get access to those places.
Now obviously a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl's not going to break into a house or it would be fairly obvious.
But after I came back from being away for a month there was another search done where we went into every house and looked in every cupboard and looked in the ceilings and went underneath every house in Kingston again, just to make sure
nothing had been missed, that she hadn't just crawled off and been missed, or that in fact she'd been hidden in one of the houses that perhaps had been locked up.
So anything that was locked up at the time, well quite naturally you didn't search that because if the residents are away and a house is locked then a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl is not going to go in.
But they were searched that second time to make sure she wasn't in there and we made sure we went and visited absolutely every single one in case somebody had somehow surreptitiously opened a house and put her in there.
A lot of those little baches down there, people don't go to them for months and months and months so we had to be satisfied that hadn't occurred.
The police and search teams came up with nothing.
But Nicola and James carried on searching, day in and day out, for another two months.
I can't begin to imagine what that must have been like - the despair of not knowing where your child is, being haunted by thoughts of her being alone, scared, hurt.
During our visit to Kingston Nicola showed me where she and James searched.
There are a heap of tracks up into the bush that the couple walked countless times.
They clambered through overgrowth and pools of water, turned over rocks – looking anywhere a little girl could have stumbled.
We went out searching by boat, all along the reserves, along the sides, up to Half Moon Bay and back again.
We've been searching all out the back here, we walked the railway lines, we looked in little cavity holes, under rocks, things like that.
We've been all up the back of the bush, along the tracks and I've done that a few times, every time we've come to Kingston.
You know, I've followed a lot of false leads, false hopes, maps that have been sent to me dotting out where she is. I've searched all those, to nothing.
Tell me how it feels when you're doing those searches? Is your heart racing, hoping you'll see something?
Well it does, but you're inclined to forget that 25 years have passed and what you're actually looking for now.
I mean, back then we were looking for a little girl, you know? Hopefully a girl who was alive.
Now, it's hard. It's hard to look.
You come across bones up in the track and you think 'oh is this animal or is this human/' and you wonder about those things.
It's like a few years back when bones were actually found down the road there and turned out to be sheep bones.
I'll never forget that day that actually happened because that tore me to bits.
I got a sense of how it would feel if she was found - the loss, the pain, the anger that I felt that day… and then to be told they were animal bones was um, that was painful.
I screamed, I cried, I was so angry, I was angry with the media because it was all over the radio before I was even told.
It's just hard, I mean, I don't know what to say - I've learned to live with it and I've learned to deal with it and hope that one day someone somewhere might remember something or seeing something and we get some answers.
There's one track that Nicola still searches every time she goes to Kingston.
She doesn't know why, but she's drawn to it.
She walks along slowly, her head moving from side to side, her eyes constantly scanning for any sign of her daughter.
You find yourself doing it too - you just want to find something, anything that could solve this mystery.
During our visit, she walked that track again with Mike Scott, and they chatted about her endless search for her baby girl.
What were you actually thinking when you were looking down this way?
I don't know ay… There's so many places to hide a wee body.
It's vast land, it's bush everywhere.... crikey it would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack if she was ever buried here.
Can you actually imagine though, Amber-Lee at 2-and-a-half coming up here?
Yeah, I can imagine her running along here if she was with me but not on her own.
This would be too scary, it's quite dark and a lot of bush around.
Is that what you were thinking, way back?
Yeah, I used to think 'how far could a 2-year-old get and I'd walk that distance.
I remember on the night she went missing I thought I heard a little girl yelling out from up here and always wondered if maybe she'd been brought up here.
You thought you heard a girl?
Yeah, yelling from up above when I was down at the house and I thought I
heard a little girl from the distance, which seemed to be coming from up the boat ramp way.
Did you tell anyone that you thought you heard someone?
At the time yes, we were all talking about it, that's why people came up here looking but there was never any sign of her up here.
Sometimes I'm walking along and I'm wondering if maybe I've walked past her, you know?
If she is in the vicinity and I have, I've walked past her not knowing that that's where she lies.
Those sorts of thoughts always go through your head every time you come here and walk around and have a nosey.
It gives you hope that you see maintenance happening around the place and you kinda think that if she was around here that someone may stumble across her.
If Amber-Lee was at Kingston, surely in 25 years someone would have found her - a hunter, a local - even a dog.
But there has been no sign of the little girl, at all.
Which begs the question - did someone take her?
Amber-Lee's memorial at Kingston reads "missing, presumed drowned".
In episode two of Chasing Ghosts, I'll tell you why that's simply not the case, and what likely happened to the todder 25 years ago.
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.