Federal prosecutors seek to continue detaining Navy nuclear engineer, wife charged with selling submarine secrets
BALTIMORE, MD. (Tribune News Service) — Federal prosecutors said Monday they are seeking pretrial detention for an Annapolis-based Navy nuclear engineer and his wife who are facing espionage charges for selling military secrets to people who they thought were representatives of a foreign country.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe were arrested Saturday in Jefferson County, West Virginia, and federal prosecutors say they should be held pending trial because they face a maximum possible penalty of life in prison and are a “serious risk” to flee or obstruct justice.
A criminal complaint unsealed Sunday in U.S. District Court in West Virginia alleges that Jonathan Toebbe reached out to an unidentified foreign country in the spring of last year offering to sell secrets, but the package was obtained by the FBI, who began communicating with him in December.
Jonathan Toebbe allegedly communicated with undercover agents via secure channels, received secret signals and left memory cards with sensitive information embedded in a peanut butter sandwich and a Band-Aid wrapper at prearranged locations, according to the complaint. His wife was observed assisting with the drops, the FBI says.
They are scheduled for an initial appearance Tuesday morning in a West Virginia federal court, with prosecutors requesting a detention hearing later in the week. They do not yet have defense attorneys listed in court records.
As part of the criminal complaint, prosecutors allege Jonathan Toebbe told the person he was in contact that he had “considered the possible need” to leave the U.S. on short notice.
“Should that ever become necessary, I will be forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family,” the document quoted him as writing. “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.”
Toebbe, 42, a former naval officer, held a top-secret security clearance and had worked on projects related to the nuclear propulsion of Navy submarines since 2012. He was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors.
His wife, 45, has been a humanities teacher at the Key School in Annapolis for 10 years.
According to their Facebook pages, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe are originally from Southern California, and neighbors said they have two children.
“The complaint charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. “The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice.”
Neighbors said that on Saturday federal agents swarmed the Toebbe’s home in the Hillsmere Estates neighborhood of Annapolis, which they purchased in 2014 for $430,000, according to state real estate records. Agents knocked on every door in the quiet, kid-friendly, tree-lined neighborhood wanting to know about the couple’s “patterns of life,” how they acted or whether they ever heard any arguing, said the neighbors, who declined to give their names.
The information Jonathan Toebbe allegedly provided during the sting included information about the nuclear reactors for the Virginia-class of fast attack submarines, according to a court document, which he allegedly agreed to provide data from in exchange for thousands of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency.
The Navy already has taken delivery of 19 Virginia-class submarines, built by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, and Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Virginia. The Navy plans to eventually buy 66 of the submarines, which carry cruise missiles and also are designed to hunt and destroy other submarines and to be used for gathering intelligence. Replacing the older Los Angeles-class attack subs, they currently cost about $3.5 billion each.
While the technology has been around for years, the United States has long been a leader in nuclear submarine development. That gives the U.S. an advantage in that nuclear submarines can stay underwater for long periods without needing to refuel, said Camille Palmer, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at Oregon State University.
That’s not the only technology that could be of use to other nations. There is also research into refining the subs that could be imparted to interested countries.
”It’s different than the commercial nuclear reactors,” Palmer said. “They’re operating in very close proximity to the reactor so they have to deal with noise and also battle situations such as withstanding shock.”
According to the criminal complaint, Toebbe spent months negotiating with his contacts, asking at one point if there was “some physical signal” that could be sent so who he thought were foreign representatives could prove their identity. The FBI then placed a signal “at a location associated with COUNTRY1″ over Memorial Day weekend, it said. Within days, the complaint said, Toebbe confirmed he’d received the signal and was ready to go ahead with a dead drop.
With his wife, Toebbe drove June 26 to a location in West Virginia to drop off an SD card, wedged in a half-peanut butter sandwich, containing restricted material that cannot be shared under the federal Atomic Energy Act, the complaint said. Diana Toebbe appeared to be “acting as a lookout” as her husband left the material, according to the court filing.
In July, Toebbe and his wife drove to a location in south-central Pennsylvania and allegedly dropped off another SD card with hundreds of pages of schematics, drawings and other documents. The complaint described it as sealed in a Band-Aid wrapper on this occasion.
“This information was slowly and carefully collected over several years in the normal course of my job to avoid attracting attention and smuggled past security checkpoints a few pages at a time,” the FBI quoted Toebbe as messaging them. “I no longer have access to classified data so unfortunately cannot help you obtain other files.”
In late August, Jonathan Toebbe allegedly dropped off another SD card in Virginia, concealed in a chewing gum wrapper.
When he and his wife arrived Saturday in Jefferson County, allegedly for another drop-off, they were arrested. Jonathan Toebbe had at one point sent a message saying he was concerned that he was being set up. The amount of money he was being offered was “a common tactic used by U.S. security forces to expose agents,” he said, citing news reports.
“U.S. security forces are lazy,” he said.
But he nonetheless continued to work with the undercover agents, hailing their “partnership.”
“One day, when it is safe, perhaps told old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits,” he wrote. “Whether we meet or no, I will always remember your bravery in serving your country and your commitment to helping me.”
The Navy provided a summary of Toebbe’s military career Sunday that said he joined the service in 2012 in Denver, studied at the Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island, and was a nuclear engineering officer based in Northern Virginia and Pittsburgh. He became a lieutenant in 2016 and left active duty in 2017. He was a human resources officer in the reserves until he left the Navy in December 2020.
But court records said he continued to work as a nuclear engineer with the U.S. Navy, holding an active top security clearance from the Department of Defense and a Q clearance from the Department of Energy.
The Key School said in a statement that it was “in no way connected to the investigation nor any personal criminal activity involving the Toebbes. Diana Toebbe has been suspended from Key School indefinitely pending the outcome of the investigation.”
(Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Christine Condon and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.)
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