Walter Patzl, a target of the federal government's latest investigation into illegal technology shipments to the Soviet Union, is hardly the picture of a high-tech wizard.
The tall, 32-year-old, Austrian-born businessman came to the United States in the late 1970s to work as a marketing consultant at the Los Angeles offices of the Austrian Trade Commission. Patzl's job, recalled a commission official, was to link Austrian companies with American firms and distributors interested in importing Austrian goods, primarily consumer products.
"He was interested in technology, but I don't think he could be considered a high-tech specialist," recalled Gerhard Meschke, deputy Austrian trade commissioner in Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, in 1985, Patzl left the trade commission and the world of consumer products to open Essex Marketing Corp., a Los Angeles export and marketing company arranging the export of computers and other high-tech gear to overseas customers.
He opened an office in the same Wilshire Boulevard building that housed the Austrian Consulate and hired a single employee, an administrative assistant.
By all accounts, Patzl spent the next few years helping foreign companies buy U.S.-made computers and other high-tech equipment.
But earlier this week reports surfaced in Washington linking Essex to a government investigation into illegal shipments to the Soviet Union of a computer system that could help determine optimal targets for nuclear missiles.
Through his Washington attorney, Patzl said he had violated no laws and was cooperating fully with the government's investigation. Patzl could not be reached for direct comment.
According to initial reports, the inquiry centers on an alleged shipment last Dec. 21 of a computer capable of simulating nuclear explosions. The shipment was originally intended for an engineering college in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. However, investigators report that it was diverted to the Soviet Union after heading first to East Berlin.
U.S. law prohibits the export of items with possible military applications to Soviet Bloc nations. Other high-technology goods may be shipped to those nations only with the approval of the Paris-based Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, or COCOM.
However, Yugoslavia, although a communist nation, is not officially aligned with the Soviet Union, and high-technology shipments there do not require COCOM approval.
Donald Creed, a spokesman for the Commerce Department, said government investigators had uncovered "an elaborate scheme to divert a high-technology computer."
But James Stearns, Patzl's attorney in Washington, said Patzl "does not know why he's being investigated," and is cooperating with government officials to learn the nature of the allegations.