Mother welcomes reward offer for missing daughter

Amber-Lee Cruickshank went missing at Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in 1992.

Nearly 30 years on since the disappearance of two-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank, her mother Nicola is welcoming police's new offer of $100,000 for information that leads to a conviction.

On Tuesday, police announced the reward for details that bring a conviction of anybody responsible for the toddler's disappearance. Amber-Lee was last seen on October 17, 1992, in Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu.

Police believe she was the victim of foul play, but no one has ever been held accountable.

"It's long overdue. We've waited a long time for this to happen, and just hope we get some answers from it," Nicola Cruickshank told Checkpoint.

"I'm hoping that whoever holds the key to this mystery, so to speak, this nightmare that we're living in, can come forward and actually put an end to it. Or if anyone has any information about it that they come forward and that we can get some closure.

"We've lived 29 years in pain and suffering and torment. And endless searching, endless scenarios and stories. We're just praying for this nightmare to end and this $100,000 reward is going to be enough to prompt someone to come forward."

She says she has managed to carry on with a lot of support from her family and friends.

"Without the support from my sons, I don't think I would have made it this far… they have never given up hope, just like I have never given up hope.

"The day when we arrived in Kingston, the window in the back of the bus broke on the way there. When we arrived there, we decided to stay the night to get it fixed, and my partner at the time had friends in Kingston who were interacting with other friends. It was decided that we'd have a barbecue, because we were staying for tea.

"We had a barbecue and did the big clean-up. I recall probably around eight, 10 of us. Twenty-nine years ago, I don't remember everybody. I just remember six of us especially, and maybe a couple of others.

"They'd just gone and taken the boat out, and they'd come back in the ute. My partner's friend went to lift her out and she refused to go to him because she didn't know him, so my partner at the time, he lifted her out. I got her a glass of coke, she was at the front of the house, and that was the last time I saw her."

Nicola says she'd gone over that evening in her mind countless times.

"Wondering how, why, who, what, and forever wondering. I just can't understand how this has happened or why this has happened.

"She was just a little girl, she didn't like strangers, she didn't like water. I knew my daughter. I knew what she was like. So for her to go off with a stranger? Unlikely. For her to go near the lake? Most unlikely of all, she hated water.

"So the only way should could be in that lake is if someone put her there."

When they realised Amber-Lee was missing, Nicola says all hell broke loose as they ran around asking everyone if they had seen her daughter.

"We started door knocking, then the sun was going down, we knew we had to ring the police, it was going to be dark.

"We made the phone call, the police arrived, a search was put together. We were to stay at the house, I wasn't allowed to search for her. They searched that night, Sunday, called it off Sunday night, searched Monday, then called it off, presumed drowned."

It was an extensive search that included the lake and surrounding area, she says.

"Helicopters all up in the hills deploying the army, dropping them in, coming down the hills, the railway tracks, all the nooks and crannies, the creeks, the lake, the shores, all the way down to Athol, Garston, all around there.

"You name it, they searched it."

Police had always told Nicola the case remained open and any leads were followed up, but nothing had come to fruition, she says.

"I don't know where it is now or what the theory is. Obviously at the beginning they presumed drowned. Six months down the track it then became foul play. The dump was searched then, but so much amount of rubbish had been dumped."

Nicola says she suspects foul play in the disappearance of her daughter.

"That land in Kingston has been searched from head to toe."

She had a message for anyone who knew something about what had happened.  

"Have a heart. Grow some balls, come forward. Put an end to this nightmare. Imagine if it was your daughter and you were living this, and someone had done this to you. How would you feel?

"Twenty-nine years is enough for anyone to suffer, this long, and be tormented by not knowing. Please, let's bring it to closure, that's all we want, I just want my baby girl back."

'We believe people out there have information' - police

"We believe there are people out there that have information that would assist us in our investigation," Southern District Detective Inspector Stu Harvey told Checkpoint.  

"Anything we can get from the public in regards to getting some evidence or information that will lead to answers on how Amber-Lee disappeared is going to be great for [her mother Nicola]. 

"The investigation has been ongoing for 28-and-a-half years, inquiries that have been undertaken - when you review all those you just look at it and say the most likely scenario is foul play. What I mean by that is somebody's been involved in her disappearance." 

He says the extensive searches and inquiries so far had ruled out the possibility Amber-Lee drowned in the lake or something similar. 

"We're keeping a really open mind in regards to what's actually happened to Amber-Lee. At this stage we believe somebody's been involved in her disappearance, and the $100,000 reward will hopefully spark somebody into giving us information or some evidence that is going to give some closure to the family.

"Everybody in the township at that time was spoken to. There was extensive searches of all the properties. From those inquiries, there have been ongoing inquiries in relation to some people that were in the area at the time. 

"I don't really want to go into the details of who or how many there were further inquiries done with, but certainly that has been one of our focuses, that there is somebody in that township that may know more. And that is hopefully where this reward will give us the opportunity to follow through." 

The offer of a reward would remain in place for six months, police said in a statement.

The statement also said the Police Commissioner would determine the amount of the reward and would, if necessary, apportion payment where there was more than one claimant.

"Immunity from prosecution may be considered for any accomplice, not being the main offender, who provides information or evidence to police."

Anyone with information is asked to contact police via 105 and reference Operation Oliver.

-RNZ.

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