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A Navy engineer and his wife, accused of selling nuclear secrets to an undisclosed foreign power, pose a flight risk, prosecutors said ahead of the couple’s first federal court appearance.
Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and Diana Toebbe, 45, who are charged with espionage-related crimes, appeared in orange jumpsuits before a magistrate judge in Martinsburg, West Virginia on Tuesday.
Judge Robert Trumble ordered the couple be remanded into custody pending official detention hearings on Friday. They appeared separately, transcripts of the preliminary appearance show.
In earlier court filings, prosecutors argued Jonathan and Diana Toebbe posed a “serious risk” of fleeing.
The couple, who is accused of violating the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, was arrested for smuggling schematic designs of U.S. nuclear stealth submarine designs, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Oxygen.com. They’re charged with conspiracy to communicate restricted data and the communication of restricted data.
In April 2020, the Maryland couple allegedly mailed an envelope containing sensitive Navy documents to an unspecified foreign nation, identified in court filings only as “COUNTRY1.” The intent of the postmarked package, traced to a return address in Pittsburgh, was to “establish a covert relationship,” charging documents stated. The country’s officials later turned over the envelope’s contents to U.S. authorities.
The FBI, who launched a counterintelligence investigation, began corresponding with Toebbe using end-to-end encrypted messaging. An undercover agent posing as a foreign diplomat cultivated a relationship with Toebbe for months in order to gain his trust, authorities said.
At the time, the 42-year-old was a Navy nuclear engineer with top-level security access, including an active Q clearance.
“I believe this information will be of great value to your nation,” Toebbe wrote to undercover agents, according to the complaint. “This is not a hoax.”
Toebbe was ultimately paid a total of $100,000 in Monero cryptocurrency from FBI agents in exchange for a sampling of the sensitive military documents, which pertained to the Navy’s Virginia-class stealth attack submarines.
He smuggled nuclear warship designs to undercover agents using memory cards concealed in peanut butter sandwiches, Band-Aids, and chewing gum wrappers he left at “dead drop” sites in different states, according to the FBI’s complaint.
In his communique with the federal investigators, Toebbe allegedly spoke of fleeing the country with his family if his cover was ever blown. In his final transmissions, he requested his undercover fixer help arrange his extraction, if necessary.
“I have considered the possible need to leave on short notice,” Toebbe wrote in an encrypted message, according to the complaint. “Should that ever become necessary, I will be forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family. I surmise the first step would be unannounced travel to a safe third country with plans to meet your colleagues. We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose. I pray such a drastic plan will never be needed.”
Diana Toebbe, who accompanied her husband to data drop sites as a lookout, according to the FBI, is a humanities teacher at Key School in Annapolis. School officials confirmed she’s been suspended pending investigation. She’s been a faculty member for 10 years.
“Key School is shocked and appalled to learn of the charges filed against faculty member Diana Toebbe and Jonathan Toebbe,” Head of School Matthew Nespole said in a statement sent to Oxygen.com. “Key School had no prior knowledge of their alleged criminal activities, nor is the School connected to the investigation in any way. Key School supports the administration of justice by the FBI and NCIS, and will cooperate with the investigation if requested through our school’s legal counsel to do so.”
Officials haven’t revealed which country’s government Toebbe allegedly targeted in his correspondence.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe are scheduled in court for a detention hearing on Oct. 15. If found guilty, the couple faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment and a fine of $100,000.
Nicholas J. Compton, a public defender representing Jonathan Toebbe, declined to comment on the case when contacted by Oxygen.com on Wednesday. Barry P. Beck and Edward B. MacMahon Jr., who were appointed as Diana Toebbe’s counsel, were not immediately available to comment this week.
Some counterintelligence experts said a damage assessment must now be conducted to assess the potential impact a successful transmission of such sensitive military data would have had on U.S. national security.
“It appears clear the Toebbe’s have been planning this for years as their retirement nest egg,” Mark Fallon, a former deputy assistant director for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) told Oxygen.com. “NCIS and FBI will be trying to determine if this was his first [or] only attempt to pass this material and what other material might be in his possession."
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