Judge rejects plea deal for former Navy engineer and his wife in submarine spy case

·4-min read
Judge rejects plea deal for former Navy engineer and his wife in submarine spy case

A judge has rejected the plea deals for a former US Navy engineer and his wife, arguing that their suggested prison sentences were too forgiving, following their guilty pleas to conspiring to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign state.

Six months ago, Jonathan Toebbe, 43, and his wife Diana Toebbe, 46, based in Annapolis, Maryland, pleaded guilty to the charges and agreed to plea agreements that would have seen Toebbe spend between 12.5 and 17.5 years behind bars and for his wife to face three years in prison, according to The Baltimore Sun.

US District Court Judge Gina Groh of the Northern District of West Virginia said that the suggested penalties were “not in the best interest” of the US.

The couple withdrew their guilty pleas with Judge Groh scheduling a new trial date for 17 January, but the paper reported that prosecutors will probably agree on a new plea agreement with the defendants before that time.

A naval officer with a top-secret security clearance, Jonathan Toebbe had been involved in projects connected to nuclear submarines since 2012.

Diana Toebbe taught humanities at The Key School in southern Annapolis. Living in the Hillsmere Shores neighbourhood of the city with their two children, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But they were in the process of selling American military secrets to another country.

The authorities have never revealed the country to which the couple attempted to sell secrets, but The Independent reported on allegations in March that it was Brazil.

Judge Groh noted that drug dealers often receive “way longer” sentences than the 36 months proposed for Diana Toebbe, according to The Baltimore Sun.

These booking photos released Oct. 9, 2021, by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority show Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe. (AP)
These booking photos released Oct. 9, 2021, by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority show Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe. (AP)

Prosecutors and her lawyer Barry Beck argued that her lack of defence industry knowledge, restricted involvement, and the stigma connected to the offence made the sentence suitable.

Assistant US Attorney Jarod Douglas said, “she will be labeled a spy for the rest of her life”.

Mr Beck said she will live with a “scarlet letter” attached to her forever.

Jonathan Toebbe smuggled information concerning the Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarines, which could go for 33 years without needing to refuel, The Baltimore Sun noted.

Prosecutors argued that his cooperation after pleading guilty, recovering both money and documents, meant that his suggested sentence was appropriate.

The commander of the Navy’s submarines based in the Atlantic, Vice Admiral William Houston, said in a statement that Toebbe “captured some of the most secure and sensitive information about our nuclear-powered fleet”.

“A critical component of national defense has been irreparably compromised,” he added.

Toebbe sent his first message to the foreign government in April 2020, including samples of the information he had access to. He told the recipient of the message to get in touch before the year was over if they wanted to buy more information.

“I apologize for this poor translation into your language,” he wrote. “Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”

Just days before the deadline in December 2020, the foreign recipient of the letter sent it to the FBI, prompting the investigation.

Federal agents working undercover communicated with Toebbe for more than a year via encrypted emails. They posed as foreign agents and orchestrated four transfers of documents in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Toebbe downloaded classified materials to SD cards, putting them in peanut butter sandwiches and chewing gum packets and leaving them in locations decided on beforehand, according to The Baltimore Sun.

“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,” Toebbe said in a message to the FBI, according to the agency. “I no longer have access to classified data so unfortunately cannot help you obtain other files.”

Diana Toebbe pled guilty after it was found that she in three instances helped her husband by serving as his lookout. The FBI paid Jonathan Toebbe $100,000 in cryptocurrency for the information.

“Should that ever become necessary, I will be forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family,” he told the undercover FBI agents. “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.”

Agents raided the couple’s home in October, finding $11,000 in cash as well as their children’s passport and a backpack holding a computer and a cryptocurrency wallet.

Signing off each email as “Alice,” Toebbe often shared his worries that he could be speaking to the authorities, whom he called “adversaries”.

“Thank you for your partnership as well, my friend,” he wrote in a message to an agent. “One day, when it is safe, perhaps two 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.”