In skyscraper offices overlooking the gold-domed Pennsylvania capitol in Harrisburg, a dozen state investigators have spent the last two weeks combing through 16 moving boxes of personal items found in an apartment belonging to George Washington University professor Paul Arthur Crafton.

Their search has led them on what one investigator called an international "plastic and paper chase" spanning three continents that has begun to clarify some facets of the 59-year-old Potomac professor's complicated life. But it remains unclear how, as prosecutors allege, he juggled a complicated array of jobs, identities and relationships.

Pennsylvania Attorney General LeRoy S. Zimmerman, who is directing the investigation, theorizes that the motive for Crafton's alleged activities "seems to be narrowing down to money, greed, women and possibly merely the thrill of staying one step ahead" of authorities.

Crafton, who is charged with 27 counts of forgery, theft by deception, tampering with official documents and false swearing, has consistently declined to discuss the case, as has his lawyer, John Pyfer. Pyfer has said that one of Crafton's reasons for holding several jobs was to finance expensive medical treatment for his handicapped teen-age daughter.

The details that emerged last week gave some indication of Crafton's personality, life style and possible motives:

* Investigators say that although 60 credit cards--including four American Express Gold Cards--were found in Crafton's possession, they have been told Crafton generally eschewed credit cards in favor of cash transactions. They say he spent large amounts of cash and believe he rented a Mercedes Benz in Switzerland and stayed at expensive hotels while traveling in Europe.

* A 32-year-old Towson, Md., accountant says that two weeks before he was arrested, Crafton, posing as a British financier, arranged a date with her after she had answered his personal ad in Baltimore Magazine seeking "companionship and marriage." Two days before his arrest, Crafton and a different person registered at the Patrick Henry Inn in Williamsburg, Va., according to a copy of a bill introduced in court.

* Credit card records also submitted by prosecutors in court show that Crafton traveled to Basel, Switzerland, during the summers of 1978 through 1981. Investigators say Crafton dropped his daughter off at a Swiss hospital and then apparently traveled with a variety of female companions with whom he corresponded. On at least one trip, Crafton was accompanied by his wife, Sonia.

* A Rockville printer said his firm has records of more than 15 different business cards ordered by Crafton between 1977 and 1982 listing a variety of names and professions.

* A George Washington administrator said questions about Crafton's general job performance and his supervision of a doctoral student led to his censure there five years ago.

* Until this past school year, Crafton drove his daughter, Laura Melanie, who has cerebral palsy, to school each morning and insisted that he, and not the school's therapists, handle the girl's physical therapy, according to Donna Evans, who has taught Laura Crafton for seven years in Montgomery County schools. "He was a very concerned father about his daughter's education," she said. "He discussed the operations with me, how they were going to take Laura out of school because of scheduling problems with this physician overseas."

Crafton, who is free on $100,000 bond, is in seclusion at his Potomac home. Prosecutors have located Crafton's brother and sister, a Philadelphia school teacher, who are cooperating with authorities, but law enforcement officials say learning even the simplest details of Crafton's life has proved to be a difficult exercise.

His name at birth was Cohen, which investigators say he changed in 1941 while an engineering student at City College of New York. Officials say Crafton's immigrant parents, both now dead, changed their names to Crafton in 1944.

Crafton grew up in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay neighborhood near Brighton Beach, then a tightknit neighborhood inhabited by upwardly mobile Jewish immigrant families. In 1940 at age 18, Crafton graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School, an academically prestigious school that numbers writer Joseph Heller, Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman and international financier Bernie Cornfeld among its alumni.

According to the Lincoln yearbook, Crafton was freshman class president, a member of the student senate and active in several honor societies.

"He was exceedingly bright," recalls Gerald Greenberg, a former classmate who later taught at Lincoln. "Paul was very quiet, very unassuming, nice-looking with a sort of refined air about him. He was not a personality kid or a sparkler. He stood out simply because he had such high marks and the smartest kids always stuck out."

At City College, Crafton was a member of several engineering and scientific fraternities. Days after his graduation in 1944, he joined the staff of the Naval Research Lab in Southwest Washington, where he worked on the development of experimental equipment for the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) project used in the detection of enemy aircraft.

Navy records show that Crafton was commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserves in 1944, while he was working at the lab. He received an honorable discharge in November 1945.

In 1950, while working full time at the lab, Crafton received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland. Six years later he received a doctorate.

"I still remember him because he was the outstanding student in my class on advanced thermodynamics," recalls Maryland engineering professor Redfield Allen.

Little is known about his wife, Sonia, whom his lawyer said Crafton married in White Plains, N.Y., in 1953. The couple has two children, Eric, 20, a college student, and Laura Melanie, 17.

Crafton joined the GW faculty as an associate professor of engineering in September 1956, the same month he began a two-year period of part-time work at the Naval Research Lab.

Former university officials recall there was some concern about Crafton's dual employment but that administrators agreed to permit it.

"Paul was a thoroughly honest, intelligent individual but he sort of worked on projects by himself," said Carlyle V. Parker, his former supervisor at the lab. Parker said the Navy was aware of Crafton's teaching position at GW, where Crafton became chairman of the department of engineering administration in 1971, a post he held until 1975, when he was ousted in a vote of his colleagues.

Sam Rothman, who succeeded Crafton as chairman, says he received dozens of complaints from students about his predecessor's inaccessibility and strict teaching methods. In order to communicate with Crafton, the department often sent certified letters to his home, Rothman said.

Because Crafton was tenured, however, university administrators said they were limited in the sanctions they could impose. "You never want to get into it," Rothman said, referring to formal disciplinary procedures necessary to remove a tenured professor. "We never felt we had enough evidence."

Continued dissatisfaction led Crafton's colleagues in the department of engineering administration to formally censure him in 1977. "It's a serious move," Rothman said. "There was a good deal of dissatisfaction with his behavior and we decided to take action. We wanted to put it on record."

Some of the dissatisfaction stemmed from his supervision of a doctoral degree awarded in 1976 to Juliani Gatzoulis, 42, now an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland.

Gatzoulis said last week that she was unaware of any questions about Crafton's supervision of her course work. "I was an A student," she said. "I attended all the classes and took all the exams . . . I'm a studious person."

Because Crafton's performance did not improve after his censure, according to Rothman, his $21,000 annual salary was cut 10 percent and he was not given summer school classes and doctoral students.

"He was absolutely withdrawn," said Rothman, echoing other faculty members who said Crafton did not attend faculty lunches or social occasions. "He never looked happy. I never recall seeing him smile."

Colleagues and students describe Crafton as extremely bright. Between 1966 and 1976 he patented seven inventions, including a coded system to verify credit card users. In his 1973 application for the security method, Crafton wrote that "a system must be developed which can verify a user's authority without relying on his personal signature or his identification papers" because, he noted, those can be fraudulently obtained.

When and why Crafton began creating what appears to be a complex web of multiple identities is unclear.

A spokeswoman for Americana Center apartments in Rockville, where Crafton bought a two-bedroom garden apartment in 1976, said Crafton rented the apartment, under one-year leases, to "Arthur Holland" and "Peter Connaught," two of the aliases authorities have said Crafton used. "One time I did see a man coming out of there," said the spokeswoman. "I said, 'He looks enough like Paul Crafton to be his brother.' " Crafton contacted a Bethesda real estate agent three weeks ago and a sales contract has been written on the apartment.

The first instance in which officials say Crafton used an alias in an academic situation occurred in November 1978, when Crafton applied for a $17,302 per year accounting job with the Anne Arundel County Public Schools posing as Jonathan David North.

When he failed to show up for work and school authorities were unable to verify his credentials, Crafton was fired. Nine months later, using the name David Arthur Gordon and an impressive list of credentials from British universities, Crafton joined the business administration faculty of Towson State University, according to university officials. Pennsylvania authorities believe that neither Gordon nor North is a real person. It wasn't until two years later, Towson officials say, that they pressed "Gordon" for his credentials and complained about his erratic attendance. By mutual agreement he left abruptly in March 1982.

Meanwhile, Crafton was hired using the identity of a real person, Australian computer professor John Byron Hext. Crafton submitted copies of Hext's Cambridge credentials to New York's Wagner College, where he was hired as a math teacher for the 1982 spring and summer term, according to college officials.

Subsequently he applied for teaching jobs at least 22 colleges in five states and Canada. At the time of his arrest March 21, he was teaching simultaneously at GW and at Shippensburg State College and Millersville State College in Pennsylvania.

Sometime after 1979, according to documents submitted by prosecutors, post office boxes and private mail drops in the District, Maryland and Virginia were rented under names allegedly used by Crafton. Prosecutors say he apparently used the addresses to obtain credentials from foreign universities for what "appeared to be paper corporations" billed as international investment banking firms, art dealerships and a company engaged in intercontinental oil drilling.

At the same time, Crafton began dating women he met through personal ads in Washington and Baltimore magazines, according to three of the women. Letters introduced in court by prosecutors show he also wrote to several European women, one of whom he apparently traveled with while his daughter was being treated at a Swiss clinic.

"Dearest Sylvia," begins one letter written in the name of Peter deWitt Connaught. "My immediate task is to rearrange matters at Holland and Co. a Baltimore firm investigators say existed only in name straightaway, and then to heavily concentrate on assuring the large financial means to hopefully contribute to your happiness. Please be patient with me."

Two Washington women, Saundra Hardbower and Saundra Moore, say that in 1981, Crafton, posing as Connaught, dated them after answering their ads in Washingtonian Magazine.

Three weeks ago, as "Anthony Williams," he met a 32-year-old Towson accountant who answered his ad in the February issue of Baltimore Magazine, according to the accountant. The woman, who requested anonymity, described him as a well-dressed and "absolutely charming man, exceedingly intelligent."

"He said his father was a British diplomat who met his mother, a Jewess, in the Netherlands. His father was sent to the United States and ended up in Idaho, where he was born in a rustic mountain cabin.

"He did say he was a financier setting up an investment company in the United States. He said the banks would give him better service. Had he been an actor, had this been a movie, he would have won an Academy Award."