Investigations on the local film icon Nida Blanca now focuses on a money trail that leads to a highly controversial bank account, believed to be owned by deposed president Joseph Estrada.

An agent of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), confided to reporters on the condition of anonymity yesterday, "we are now trying to verify whether two cheques debited against an account, named to a certain Jose Velarde with Equitable Bank, are connected to the murder of Blanca or not."

The first cheque was worth P150 million ($3 million), the other worth P50 million ($1 million) and were issued months before the 63-year-old Blanca was found slumped at the back of her car, in suburban San Juan, dead due to several stab wounds.

"The NBI is trying to gather information that Blanca could have been killed because of these cheques," the agent, one of the 35 assigned by the bureau to investigate the case, said.

The Jose Velarde account, according to Estrada's critics, contains at least P2 billion of the former president's alleged ill-gotten gains that he amassed while in power. The account was said to have contained protection money given to the then president by illegal gambling operators and proceeds from other corrupt activities. Estrada was ousted in January 2001, 11 months before Blanca was killed.

Blanca, publicly known for leading a wholesome and clean life as she portrayed in her numerous film roles spanning five decades, was reported to have come from a casino on the night before her body was found at the garage of a building, where she also went to office as a member of the government film censor board.

Earlier rumours said Blanca had incurred huge debts from a syndicate lending money to gamblers. In a television interview, Reynaldo Wycoco, NBI Chief confirmed the bureau is indeed focusing on the money trail but said that the probe has no ''political colour.''

Wycoco said, "We are trying to keep the investigation under wraps, so that there are no allegations that the probe is meant at implicating the former president Joseph Estrada."

He added that after eight months of investigations, they are finally close at apprehending the suspects. "There is no new personality in the investigation," he said.

Kay Torres, Blanca's only daughter, also yesterday expressed exasperation over the slow pace of the NBI investigations.

Her lawyer, Harriet Demetriou said Torres has grown impatient over the probe. "She gave up her job in Los Angeles, California, just to focus on the case."

Demetriou, who was appointed presidential legal counsel by Estrada during the latter's presidency, also challenged Wycoco on the ongoing investigation concerning the Jose Velarde cheques.

She said a check she gave produced ''negative results''. "The Equitable Bank is willing to issue a certification as to the non-existence of any transaction between Mr Velarde and Ms Blanca," she said.

Earlier, Jun Medel, a former bodyguard of Estrada's son, Jude Estrada, admitted publicly that he was hired to kill Blanca by the actress' American husband Ronald Strunk, now in the United States.

The suspect recanted his statement, however, after another person he implicated in the killing, mysteriously disappeared.