“I just want my girl back,”
Nicola Cruickshank, Amber-Lee’s mother.
A blonde, blue-eyed toddler stands at the end of a driveway overlooking the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu.
Above her, the sun is setting over the sleepy town of Kingston, tucked beneath rugged mountain ranges about 45 minutes south of Queenstown.
Two-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank is wearing blue sneakers, a pink T-shirt, a white knitted jersey and grey track pants. She’s just returned to the Cornwall St house after a trip to the nearby dairy for an ice cream.
The toddler watches a woman, Belinda Sayer, who lives at the property, pull out of the drive and head towards Kent St.
Sayer is gone for 20 minutes. When she returns Amber-Lee has vanished.
Where the girl went is one of the country’s enduring mysteries.
Nicola Cruickshank, a battle-hardened solo mother of three sons, sits at the kitchen table in her Canterbury home and lights a cigarette.
It is nearly 25 years since her daughter disappeared. Saturday, October 17, 1992 is a day she relives “year in and year out, over and over”.
“I hate airing my dirty laundry. There are so many people out there who judge me for the things that I have done … but honesty is the best policy,” she says with a gravelly voice.
A broken window took Cruickshank, her partner James and her two children, Amber-Lee and Danny, to Kingston that day in 1992. The family had sold their home in Otautau, Southland, and bought a house-bus to start afresh on the West Coast.
Cruickshank, then 24, was trying to leave behind a life of abuse, violence and drugs.
Fate would take them down another path and their happy "fresh start" was over before it began.
On day one of their journey, the back window of their house-bus broke and glass shattered over the bed. They pulled into Kingston, where they had friends, so they could get the window fixed before carrying on their trip. They never made it to the West Coast.
"We were never meant to stop in Kingston. It was just a fly-by call in, see friends of my partner's then we were leaving," she says.
She recalls spending the day on the lake boating and jetskiing before enjoying a barbecue on the shore. Men fixed the broken window, while Cruickshank was outside "bleeding poppies" (extracting opium from poppies). The children were being watched in the house - or so she thought.
"I went into the house. Danny was asleep and there was no sign of Amber. I called and called. I looked around the house and couldn't find her. I went outside and said to everyone, 'have you seen Amber?'. They said, 'no' and I said, 'what do you mean no? She has got to be here’. Before I knew it we were doorknocking the people of Kingston to see if they had seen a little girl. They all came out to help."
Long-time Kingston resident and former chief fire officer Murray Wilson and the late Kingston Flyer stalwart Russell Glendinning were the first community members to respond.
"We formed a search party and went non-stop. We probably got it underway just on dark and went all night. We had people more or less side by side and went through every section and crib. After a while police stepped in and they took over the search. By that time, most places had been gone through about three times. I spent three days searching for that wee girl," Wilson says.
Initially, people thought she had run away and got lost, or she had walked across the road to the lake and drowned.
"The way this place was searched you wouldn't have missed a thing. You name it, we found it. Every house was searched, under houses, in ceilings. Some houses had water tanks out the front and for every one divers were put in to search the tanks. When a house was searched they put a big cross on the front lawn with spray. I was a contractor and had a digger and the police got me to dig the whole tip up. I sat there for a day and took everything out of the tip to see if the child was in there. Kingston had never seen anything like it, and haven't since."
"People didn't really voice opinions that much but everyone had it in the back of their mind."
Theories, speculation and rumours have swirled around the case.
Head of the investigation, Detective Sergeant John Kean, of Invercargill, took over the file in April 1993 when police decided to take a fresh look at it.
“We went back and looked at it in 1993 because her disappearance was very difficult to explain.”
The case is the longest of Kean's 34-year career.
“You deal with missing people, but not over this length of time. A huge amount has happened in the last 25 years. It is hard to outline everything the police have done, but at the end of the day, we haven’t solved it. It is very frustrating. It is not about what the police have or haven’t done, it is about making sure you are doing the best for the family and giving them answers. It is hard after all these years because the information dries up, but someone knows. This child just hasn’t disappeared.”
"We are comfortable she hasn't wandered anywhere on land. We would have found her. Same as in the water," Kean says.
Police dive teams searched the lake twice - in the days after the disappearance when the water was murky because of the spring thaw, then about a month later.
"Because there is no drift or current here, whatever is on the floor of the lake, stays on the floor. If she fell in there she would have been found on the night, either have sunken or most likely floating on the top. Put it this way … she is not in the lake by going down to the waterfront and falling in there."
A man who was in a row boat fishing close to the shore had been interviewed and was confident he would have seen someone "topple" into the lake, Kean says.
With no sign of Amber-Lee police started to look for suspects.
Police worked the case "from the inside out", first interviewing the people closest to Amber-Lee, then the town-folk, including every patron who was at the nearby pub.
"There were about seven to nine people at the barbecue on the day who have been interviewed as witnesses. If they were involved in the disappearance they have all kept a secret for the last 25 years. Police are comfortable Nicola and her partner and the people at the barbecue are not involved.”
Police have interviewed other "people of interest", including a suspect raised by psychics on the programme Sensing Murder.
The psychics said they believed Amber-Lee was abducted and her neck broken by a man who knew the family and was seeking revenge over a drugs dispute.
Kean says while "it all looked very theatrical on TV", it is not plausible.
“He came to police and we interviewed him. Whatever the rip-off was, I have never seen anyone as a result of that abduct a child … I don’t think there is anything in Nicola’s past that has caused her disappearance.”
Other people who were in Kingston on the day have been interviewed and not conclusively ruled out, he says.
"I will stop short of saying I believe they are involved but they may have some information. They may be totally innocent, but after 25 years that is where we are at. Questions remain unanswered with at least one person who was at Kingston on this day."
A large part of the early investigation centred around Amber-Lee being run over.
"That investigation went on for about 18 months. We believe it never happened but in the mid-90s that was a focal point of the investigation and that her body was buried away from here.
"It is like time stood still for an hour. You would think someone would have seen someone acting suspiciously but no-one has … she has just vanished. You have got her outside the house and no-one has seen her since.”
"It was a struggle to wash her face without a tanti," Nicola Cruickshank says. "I knew deep down she was not in that lake."
While police put little weight on the Sensing Murder theory, Cruickshank is convinced they identified the person responsible for her daughter's disappearance.
"They (the psychics) are the only ones who have given me answers. Although there is no proof, no body, the things they came out with I have more or less had confirmed. My theory is he has had 15 years to cover his tracks. My eyesight is 100 per cent on him. I just can't shake this feeling I am onto something here. Apparently we ripped him off … his [marijuana] plot went missing and we got the blame for it. We didn't take it. I swear that on my own life."
Life has knocked Cruickshank around.
She was born in Mataura and grew up in Gore where she got involved in a life of drugs and prostitution. She moved to Christchurch when she was 15 then returned to Gore after the birth of her first child, Harley. Initially, as a young, solo mother, Nicola considered adoption when she became pregnant with Amber-Lee, but when she was born she could not go through with it.
"I will never forget the day she was born. I watched it through a mirror. I watched her come into this world. What more could you ask for? I was stoked … I couldn't have been happier. She was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, had rosy-red cheeks. She was so bubbly, cheeky. She used to love hounding her brother Harley, chasing him around on her pink bike. She was his little shadow."
The last 25 years of her life have been lived in the public eye with her "dirty laundry" aired to the nation, exposing her to judgement and criticism, including when she was jailed in 2009 for manufacturing methamphetamine.
"I took drugs for many years to block [my feelings]. I have to feel now. I am not numbing the pain anymore. I could have chosen to stay on the path I was on 10 years ago, but I didn't. I got out of jail and I turned my life around. Jail wasn't the nicest of places but to be honest, when the judge sent me to jail he saved my life. Being in there was the first time in my life I had security, routine, structure and I got to know who I was. It was the first time in my life I had ever been straight and it took me to the age of 40. I thank the judge for sending me [to jail] because it gave me perspective and it gave me my life back. I feel like I have been hit with a lot of knocks still but I deal with them a hell of a lot differently."
Over the years, Cruickshank has learned not to give a “rat’s arse” what the public think of her. Away from the headlines, Cruickshank is “reserved”. She shies away from crowds and says she is a “people watcher”. She describes herself as spiritual, a hard worker - she is a self-employed interior and exterior painter - and she loves motorcycles. Most of all she loves her children.
Her three sons who live with her on a rental property in rural north Christchurch along with a dog, cat, horse, chickens and budgies, are her strength and speaking of her love for them brings her to tears.
"The only thing that kept me going was my kids. The effect that it has had on them over these last 20 to 25 years has been just as hard as it has been on me because they live it through me,” she says.
“My boys are my life. They are very loving … they are my rocks. If it wasn't for them I don't think I would still be here. They have stuck by me [through] thick and thin. They know my past and don't judge me for it. I have been to hell and back again I don't know how many times. I blame myself and have a lot of guilt because it is choices I have made and they haven't been good choices and I have paid the price."
Danny, 25, her middle son, says growing up has been hard with his sister missing from their family.
"I used to get teased about it at school. Kids are cruel."
He recalls vividly when there was a spark of hope Amber-Lee's remains had been found.
"I remember one time I got a call from Mum saying they had found bones. It was false hope. It turned out to be a sheep. Mum got that feeling of relief then it was taken away again. You kind of feel helpless. There is nothing you can do to replace her but you do what you can. It just hurts."
The family keeps Amber-Lee’s memory alive in special ways - Danny and Cruickshank both have her portrait tattooed on their bodies; a plaque was erected, and a tree planted, on the lakefront of Lake Wakatipu; and each year on the anniversary of her disappearance they light a candle. This year, Cruickshank plans to go for a ride on her Harley Davidson.
Over the years, hope has faded Amber-Lee will be found alive, Cruickshank says.
"It's hard to believe 25 years have actually gone past. It only feels like a few years ago. The first 15 years I always lived in hope that Amber was still alive. The last 10 years have been more to the point of finding out who actually did it and where she is. That has been my primary goal - to bring her home now. I have stopped going on wild goose chases looking for her."
"I don't wish it upon anyone to go through what we had to go through. This is never going to end until we have got some closure and the only closure for me is getting Amber-Lee back, wherever she is. It is not about getting the person for doing what they have done to her. It is about bringing her home, giving us some closure so we can move on instead of living this, year in and year out, over and over. This was an innocent two-and-a-half-year-old little girl who did nothing ... and didn't deserve whatever has happened to her. But what she does deserve is the right to be back with her family and we deserve that too. I just want my girl back. He, she, whatever has to live with it and how they sleep at night is f.....g beyond me."
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