A Maryland couple accused of trying to sell military secrets to a foreign country pleaded guilty for the second time Tuesday, weeks after a federal judge threw out their previous agreements with prosecutors, deeming those deals too lenient.
The Toebbes first pleaded guilty earlier this year, but U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh in Martinsburg, W.Va., threw out their agreements with prosecutors in August, calling them too lenient. Those plea bargains would have required Jonathan Toebbe to be sentenced to 12½ to 17½ years in prison and Diana Toebbe to three years.
Diana Toebbe now faces a sentence of at least 12½ years, and Jonathan Toebbe faces more than 21 years in prison.
Appearing in federal court Tuesday, the Toebbes admitted they conspired to sell restricted data about nuclear propulsion systems on submarines to a foreign country, a violation of the Atomic Energy Act that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The country, which is not named in court papers, sat on the couple’s offer for months before forwarding it to U.S. counterintelligence officials. FBI agents launched a sting operation, posing as agents of the foreign country and at one point arranging for the country’s embassy to display a signal at an appointed time, to engender trust with the Toebbes.
Once their plan was in motion, the suburban couple, who have two children, turned to spy tactics and cryptocurrency transactions, according to court documents.
Agents said they recorded Jonathan Toebbe over several months in 2021 leaving data cards at prearranged “dead drop” sites — concealing them inside a peanut butter sandwich, a pack of gum and an adhesive-bandage wrapper.
“I conspired with Diana Toebbe to communicate restricted data to another person with the intent to secure an advantage to a foreign nation,” Jonathan Toebbe said at a hearing Tuesday.
Diana Toebbe admitted she “acted as a lookout” during three dead drops, two of which were conducted in Jefferson County, W.Va.
Officials said that Jonathan Toebbe provided thousands of pages of documents and that his espionage ambitions had been building for years. The restricted data he delivered to undercover FBI agents included “some of the most secure and sensitive information about our nuclear-powered fleet,” according to a statement submitted to the court by the commander of U.S. submarine forces, Vice Adm. William J. Houston.
The documents included schematics and performance characteristics for a state-of-the-art attack submarine that costs about $3 billion to produce. Jonathan Toebbe had worked for the Navy for almost a decade on nuclear-propulsion technology, which enables the submarines to remain underwater for longer periods and to move more stealthily, according to court filings.
“The 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 wrote in one communication.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert W. Trumble accepted the Toebbes’ revised pleas Tuesday. But he said it will be up to Groh, the same judge who rejected the earlier plea deals, to impose their sentences.
Jonathan Toebbe’s public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
Barry P. Beck, an attorney for Diana Toebbe, previously said a three-year sentence would be appropriate because her role in the plot was limited. “Her husband had an ill-conceived idea to make money, and she agreed to go along with it,” Beck said in August. He did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.