On October 12, 2021, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe appeared at a federal courthouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia, accused of selling restricted information about nuclear-powered submarines to an FBI agent posing as a representative of a foreign government. That claim would have been unimaginable a decade earlier, when they were fresh from teaching jobs at Kent Denver, among the most prestigious schools in Colorado.
It’s not unimaginable anymore. On February 14, the FBI revealed that Jonathan had pleaded guilty to a single charge — conspiracy to communicate restricted data — in a deal that will likely result in a twelve-year sentence. And during an appearance today, February 18, before the same federal magistrate judge who handled her husband’s case, Diana admitted to serving as a lookout, thereby assisting Jonathan in illicit activities. Her sentence is expected to max out at three years.
Diana’s plea circumvents a trial over the case against the couple, which turns in part on the contents of a peanut butter sandwich, a package of gum and a Band-Aid container.
Last year, Kent Denver confirmed that both Toebbes worked in the science department at the school, and the institution is mentioned prominently on their LinkedIn pages, which are still online. The page for Jonathan, 42, cites his employment dates as 2005-2008, after which he attended the Colorado School of Mines, where he earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering while racking up a grade point average of 3.98. He then landed a gig as a Department of the Navy nuclear engineer assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, shorthanded as Naval Reactors. As part of the job, he was given national security clearance through the U.S. Department of Defense and had access to restricted info about nuclear sub design.
Diana’s LinkedIn page, which divulges that her maiden name was Smay, is out of date; it contends that the 45-year-old started at Kent Denver in 2005 and remains on the staff. But it also points out that she began teaching at the Key School in Annapolis, Maryland, where the Toebbes raised their two children, in August 2012.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Toebbes were arrested on October 9 in Jefferson County, West Virginia, by agents with the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. “For almost a year,” it states, they “sold information known as Restricted Data concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, that person was an undercover FBI agent.” As a result, the Toebbes were charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act.
On April 1, 2020, the department says, Jonathan allegedly “sent a package to a foreign government, listing a return address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, containing a sample of Restricted Data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional Restricted Data.” Shortly thereafter, he’s accused of “corresponding via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government. The individual was really an undercover FBI agent. Jonathan Toebbe continued this correspondence for several months, which led to an agreement to sell Restricted Data in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.”
More than a year later, on June 8, 2021, the undercover agent “sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Jonathan Toebbe as a ‘good faith’ payment. Shortly afterward, on June 26, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe traveled to a location in West Virginia. There, with Diana Toebbe acting as a lookout, Jonathan Toebbe placed an SD card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich at a pre-arranged ‘dead drop’ location. After retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Jonathan Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment. In return, Jonathan Toebbe emailed the undercover agent a decryption key for the SD Card. A review of the SD card revealed that it contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors.”
The feds contend that the scheme didn’t end there. On August 28, “Jonathan Toebbe made another ‘dead drop’ of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package,” the department release continues. “After making a payment to Toebbe of $70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key for the card. It, too, contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. The FBI arrested Jonathan and Diana Toebbe on October 9, after he placed yet another SD card at a pre-arranged ‘dead drop’ at a second location in West Virginia.”
The affidavit against the Toebbes is 24 pages long and contains intricate details about even more alleged activities, including a drop at a Pennsylvania location on July 31, 2021, during which an SD card was hidden “in a sealed Band-Aid wrapper with a Band-Aid inside a clear Zip Lock bag.” The card is said to have been accompanied by a long message from “Alice,” the code name prosecutors believe Jonathan used. The text concludes with this: “My friend, we have both taken considerable risks to reach this point and with good luck will soon have much to celebrate!”
That’s not the case anymore. The conspiracy beef carries a maximum penalty of up to life in prison and a fine topping out at $100,000. Jonathan’s plea agreement, which still must be blessed by a judge, calls for him to serve a minimum of 151 months, or twelve and a half years, in federal prison.
Jonathan’s plea originally left Diana’s fate in limbo. Earlier this week, the New York Times noted that her attorneys “mounted a defense that she knew nothing of the plot to steal secrets,” including a reference in one pleading to a phone call that Jonathan had with his son in which he insisted she’d done nothing wrong. But the Times maintained that in his agreement, he “said Ms. Toebbe took part in the conspiracy.”
She has now acknowledged that.
In a statement about Jonathan’s plea, Matthew G. Olsen, an assistant attorney general assigned to the Justice Department’s national security division, said: “Among the secrets the U.S. government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships. The defendant was entrusted with some of those secrets and instead of guarding them, he betrayed the trust placed in him and conspired to sell them to another country for personal profit. The Department of Justice will vigilantly protect the American people and our nation’s security by investigating and prosecuting those who violate their Constitutional oath and abuse their positions for personal gain.”