A Navy engineer and his wife were ordered detained Tuesday pending bond hearings on charges of attempting to sell secret design information for nuclear-powered submarines to a foreign nation as part of an elaborate espionage operation infiltrated by the FBI.
Jonathan Toebbe, 42, formerly assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, and Diana Toebbe, 45, accused of serving as a lookout during clandestine drops of data cards concealed in a peanut butter sandwich and a chewing gum wrapper, appeared at separate hearings in a West Virginia federal court where a magistrate judge said they qualified for court appointed lawyers.
The Maryland couple, dressed in orange prison scrubs, said little during the brief proceedings where the magistrate scheduled detention hearings for Friday.
Federal prosecutors, citing possible flight risks, are seeking to have both suspects detained pending trial.
The charges carry a maximum punishment of life in prison if convicted of violating the Atomic Energy Act. They are charged with conspiring to communicate restricted data and communicating restricted data.
For more than a year, according to federal prosecutors, Toebbe attempted to exchange the data for cryptocurrency payments totaling $100,000, first contacting a foreign government in April 2020.
The identity of the country has not been disclosed, but soon after that first contact the engineer allegedly began corresponding with an undercover FBI agent who Toebbe believed to be a representative of the foreign government.
Toebbe, according to court documents, maintained the correspondence for “several months,” leading to a deal to sell the secret data in a series of planned exchanges.
More than two weeks after receiving a “good faith” payment of $10,000 in cryptocurrency from the undercover agent in early June, the couple allegedly traveled to West Virginia where – with Diana Toebbe acting as a lookout – Jonathan Toebbe left a data memory card concealed in a half peanut butter sandwich at a pre-arranged “dead drop” location.
The agent followed up with another $20,000 payment, and the engineer allegedly provided a decryption key to access the data card. A second drop of data concealed in a gum wrapper was made at a Virginia location in August that was followed by a $70,000 payment.
FBI agents arrested the couple last week after they allegedly placed a third data card containing secret submarine design information at another West Virginia location.