By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It was time for Michael Schwartz to get even.
The day before he had been arrested in downtown Tucson at a Catholic church. Tucson plainclothes detective Tony Batelli had told parishioners running an arts and crafts bazaar that Schwartz was an activist opposed to the University of Arizona's construction of telescopes on Mount Graham.
Vatican astronomers are partners in the telescope project. Even though Schwartz, an artist, was simply seeking entry to the fair, pious parishioners of Saint Augustine's could not tolerate the presence of someone who voiced opposition to papal undertakings. Church members had Batelli arrest a bewildered Schwartz for criminal trespassing.
Twenty-four hours later, October 12, 1992, Schwartz was incredulous to see the same longhaired, bearded Batelli inside University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, working undercover and mingling with 150 demonstrators who had gathered on Columbus Day. The protesters had converged on the astronomy department once again to object to an international effort headed by UofA to build up to seven telescopes on Mount Graham, an environmentally sensitive peak looming above the town of Safford in southeast Arizona.
What happened next was recorded by Schwartz's video camera. On the videotape, Schwartz can be heard yelling, "There's a man in here who wants to take away my video camera. He arrested me yesterday. He's a large gentleman with a beard. If you would like to step forward at this time and discuss the matter, we challenge you to do so."
Batelli is quickly surrounded by demonstrators eager to get a good look at the spy.
"Please clear the way so you can see this man," Schwartz says as he zooms his lens in on Batelli, who attempts to obstruct the camera with his hand.
Batelli glances up a staircase, hoping for a quick escape from the humiliation of having his cover blown. Suddenly, Batelli's handgun falls to the floor. The clatter of metal striking tile sends gasps through the room.
"He's got a gun. Please be careful," Schwartz says in a steady monotone.
Batelli recovers his Glock pistol and turns his face from the crowd, never identifying himself. It isn't until a Tucson lawyer approaches and inspects an identification badge Batelli had pulled from beneath his shirt that everyone knows he is an undercover detective.
"Solidarity!" yells Schwartz, in celebration of the unmasking of the officer. His whoop triggers a nonviolent demonstration, featuring drumming, chanting, singing and clapping, that ends in a six-minute melee when the UofA police tries to arrest protesters.
Batelli's exposure ended his eight-month infiltration of at least two groups opposed to the international telescope project. Activists were suspicious of Batelli from day one, when he showed up for a vegetarian potluck rally with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Protesters say Batelli went so far as to suggest they commit acts of sabotage.
To those intimate with the saga of the Mount Graham telescope project, the emergence of an undercover cop spying upon and allegedly inciting students to violence is hardly a surprise. Batelli--who was working in conjunction with university administrators--is symptomatic of the zeal with which the university has pursued its grand design atop the 10,720-foot peak.
And Batelli's unmasking came at a time when new, formidable obstacles to the project were becoming evident: Financing is uncertain. The project lacks a necessary fourth partner to complete the centerpiece of the observatory--the Large Binocular Telescope. Location is also up in the air; university scientists have made an astonishing admission that they erred in selecting one site on Mount Graham and now, at the last minute, want to move the LBT to another peak. The project faces intense opposition from Indians and there are renewed concerns over endangered species.
For the university, the stakes are, appropriately, astronomical. The Mount Graham International Observatory is far more than just another scientific endeavor. The university's prestige as a major American research institution is on the line.
Science and prestige are part of the picture, but to fully grasp the sense of desperation that has fueled the university's efforts from the start, one must understand the most important element: money.
UofA has a fortune at risk atop Mount Graham. A minimum of $10 million dollars a year in research grants generated by the university's astronomy department--with more to come if the project is completed--is at stake.
During the 1990-91 academic year, the astronomy department netted $29.1 million in grants, second only to UofA's College of Medicine, which received $68 million. Grants are any university's mother lode. They not only help fund research by specific departments, but up to 50 percent of a grant can be used by the university administration for other purposes, according to UofA vice president of research Michael Cusanovich.
Educators often complain about the big-buck influence of college athletics. But the sports programs are Little Leaguers compared with the astronomy department. Last year, UofA's football team netted only $2.6 million, while the men's basketball team, a perennial national power, brought in $1.6 million. The entire athletic department budget is $14 million.
The average UofA astronomer, meanwhile, brings in more than $400,000 a year in grants. The stars, literally, underwrite many activities on the Wildcat campus.
The astronomy department sees itself as the engine for other scientific endeavors at UofA. Developments in astronomy have impacts in applied physics, chemistry, optics, electronics and computer sciences, UofA astronomer Neville Woolf says.