The Maryland couple accused of trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign country were clever enough amateur spies that investigators have not found the money they were paid or the remaining sensitive documents allegedly smuggled out of government buildings, an FBI agent testified Wednesday.
Both husband and wife face the possibility of life in prison if convicted following their Oct. 9 arrest on charges that they conspired to share “restricted data” under the Atomic Energy Act.
Jonathan Toebbe, 42, is a nuclear engineer with the Navy. Authorities charge he and his wife offered to sell government secrets about nuclear propulsion systems on submarines to an unidentified foreign country. The FBI learned of the alleged plot and conducted an undercover sting operation to gather evidence against the Toebbes.
At Wednesday’s hearings, Jonathan Toebbe did not contest the government’s desire to keep him in jail awaiting trial. Diana Toebbe, 45, asked to be released with monitoring and other conditions that would allow her to live at the couple’s Annapolis home with their two school-age children.
Each pleaded not guilty at their separate hearings.
FBI special agent Peter Olinits testified in court that he was concerned she might flee, in part because agents have searched the Toebbe home and their computers and so far have found neither the $100,000 in cryptocurrency that the U.S. government paid the couple nor the thousands of additional pages of secret documents the bureau says Toebbe stole from his job.
Olinits said that in three of the four instances in which Jonathan Toebbe allegedly dropped secret files to be picked up later by what he thought was his foreign intelligence service handler, Diana Toebbe was just a few feet away, acting as a lookout.
The agent read in court messages that he said the couple exchanged in 2019, in which they appear to be debating fleeing to a foreign country.
“I am also thinking about Plan A,” Jonathan allegedly wrote. “It’s not morally defensible either. We convinced ourselves it was fine but it really isn’t.”
She allegedly replied: “I have no problems at all with it. I feel no loyalty to abstractions,” and later added: “Let’s go sooner rather than later.”
Jonathan then wrote, “I really don’t want to go back to making $50,000 a year, especially in a country I don’t know the language.”
When agents searched the couple’s home, they found what Olinits called a “go bag” with a computer, a pair of latex gloves, and a USB drive. They also found $11,300 in cash, Olinits said. The agent described numerous surveillance photos taken of the couple, saying they show the Toebbes going to “dead drop” locations, at which Diana stands close to her husband as he is leaving behind hidden data cards for his contact; sometimes, Olinits said, she would take pictures with her camera.
The portrait painted by prosecutors was of a seemingly normal suburban couple who carefully planned for years to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign country. However, the foreign country they reached out to — which has not been named in public court filings or proceedings — told the FBI, which launched an investigation.
In a package postmarked April 1, 2020, a person the FBI says is Jonathan Toebbe offered to sell nuclear sub secrets to the foreign government and included in his introductory letter a small sample of Navy documents.
“If you do not contact me by Dec. 31, 2020 I will conclude you are uninterested and will approach other possible buyers,” the letter said, according to the FBI agent.
That offer set off a months-long undercover investigation in which agents had lengthy email discussions with the person they later identified as Jonathan Toebbe, and recorded him and his wife leaving data cards for their supposed handlers, hidden inside a peanut butter sandwich, an adhesive-bandage wrapper and a package of Dentyne gum.
Seeking to show that the Toebbes cared more about their burgeoning spy career than their children, Olinits testified that, on at least one of their out-of-state drives to a dead-drop location, the couple left their 11-year-old home alone and with no way to phone them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Lieber Smolar said federal sentencing guidelines suggest Diana Toebbe could receive about 20 years in prison if convicted. She noted that hostile foreign governments would probably be willing to pay Diana Toebbe for the secret files the FBI hasn’t yet found.
“Whatever triggered her to aid and abet her husband with this very serious federal crime hasn’t gone away,” the prosecutor said. “There’s no reason to believe that, facing life imprisonment at this time, that she would not flee the country, and has the resources to do that.”
Diana Toebbe’s lawyer, Edward MacMahon, said most of the evidence the government has offered is against her husband, not her.
“She’s not going to flee the United States and leave her children here. That’s not going to happen,” said MacMahon. “The government really doesn’t have much of a case against her.”
He suggested that any talk of leaving the country was just common liberal griping about Donald Trump’s presidency, and not evidence of a nefarious criminal scheme.
Trumble did not immediately rule on whether Diana Toebbe would be released on bail, saying he would issue a written decision later.