true crime

TRUE CRIME: The haunting disappearance of the 'girl by the lake'.

On October 17, 1992, two-year-old Amber-Lee disappeared into thin air.

Amber-Lee’s family had gone for a day out to Kingston, a small lake-side town on the southern shores of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand.

When Nicola Cruickshank and her then partner James Gill set out that morning, they had no idea that by the end of the day, Amber-Lee would be gone and in her wake would lie a multitude of unanswered questions.

This month marked the 25th anniversary of Amber-Lee’s disappearance and now New Zealand Herald journalist Anna Leask is trying to find answers for Amber-Lee’s family through her new podcast, Chasing Ghosts.

On the day of the disappearance, Cruickshank and Gill were visiting their friend’s house in Kingston. Earlier in the afternoon, Cruickshank had changed Amber-Lee’s and her younger brother’s nappies, before taking Amber-Lee down to the shore of Lake Wakatipu for a paddle.

“Amber put her toes in the water and ohhhh there was just no way that she was going anywhere near that lake after that, it was too cold,” she told the Herald.

Amber-Lee was terrified of water and her family says she’d never go into lake on her own.

Amber-Lee Cruickshank
Later that day while both Cruickshank and Gill thought the other parent was looking after Amber-Lee, the two-year-old disappeared. Image supplied.

The family then spent some time on a boat on the lake before having a barbecue.

“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.”


But that happiness didn't last long.

Later that day while both Cruickshank and Gill thought the other parent was looking after Amber-Lee, the two-year-old disappeared.

It took almost an hour before anyone noticed she was gone. Despite a frantic and desperate search, the trail for little Amber-Lee very quickly went cold.

In the months, years and decades that followed, Amber-Lee's family has been left with few answers. Did she disappear into the lake? Was she the victim of a tragic accident? Or did someone knowingly snatch the little girl out from under her parent's lapsed gaze?

“There’s nothing turning up, and we had combed Kingston. And if you’ve ever been to Kingston, it’s not a very big place so you can pretty much walk every inch of it within two months and we did that," Cruickshank said on the podcast.

Numerous searches of the lake came up empty.

“And we went out on the boat, we went round the shore in case she was in the lake and had surfaced. That was very hard.”

Amber-Lee's family eventually held a memorial service, but to this day they still don't know what happened to their little girl.


Warwick Walker was one of the first detectives to work the case and he says he's never seen a more baffling disappearance.

“Despite the isolation, despite there not being lots and lots of people around, how a two-and-a-half-year-old girl can go missing in daylight is just baffling," he told the podcast.

Walker believes someone must have snatched the little girl and they would have confided in at least one other person at some point over the last two and a half decades.

“Over the years they might keep it quiet but initially there will be some people who know,” he said.

Detectives in the area are still actively working on Amber-Lee's case to this day.

“But the reality is there are only several possibilities and working through them, firstly is did she disappear into the lake?" Detective Sergeant John Kean told Chasing Ghosts.

“Secondly, did she disappear on land?  Or thirdly, was one of the people at the barbecue involved somehow in the disappearance of Amber-Lee?

"Or was it an unknown person, who happened to visit Kingston that day and saw Amber-Lee alone and abducted her?"

To complicate matters both Cruickshank and Gill were casual drug users at the time of Amber-Lee's disappearance and they had planned to use opiates later that night.

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Over the years, this drug use and the couple's possible link to drug gangs have been investigated as potential motives for the disappearance.

Police only know one thing for sure - little Amber-Lee didn't drown in the lake. Divers scoured the lake several times and her body has never been found.

In Chasing Ghosts, Leask will revisit old leads and chase up new ones, in the hope of finally giving Amber-Lee's family some much needed closure.

The first six episodes of Chasing Ghosts are available on iTunes now. 

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