'Great danger': Couple sentenced in submarine secrets case

FILE - These booking photos released Oct. 9, 2021, by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority show Diana Toebbe, left, and Jonathan Toebbe. A judge cited the “great danger” that the Navy engineer and his wife placed on the United States in sentencing them to lengthy prison terms Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, for a plot to sell secrets about nuclear-submarines to what they thought was a foreign government. (West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority via AP, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Citing the “great danger” that a Navy engineer and his wife posed to U.S. security, a federal judge gave both of them lengthy prison terms Wednesday for a plot to sell secrets about nuclear submarines to what they thought was a representative of a foreign government.

U.S. District Judge Gina Groh, who in August rejected earlier plea agreements that had called for reduced sentencing guidelines, sentenced Jonathan Toebbe to more than 19 years and his wife, Diana Toebbe, to nearly 22 years. The sentences were handed down on Jonathan Toebbe's 44th birthday.

The Annapolis, Maryland, couple and their attorneys described the defendants' struggles with mental health issues and alcohol and said they were anxious about the nation's political climate when they sold secrets in exchange for $100,000 in cryptocurrency.

Groh said their tale “reads like a crime novel or a movie script” and that Jonathan Toebbe’s “actions and greedy self-serving intentions placed military service members at sea and every citizen of this country in a vulnerable position and at risk of harm from adversaries.”

Diana Toebbe, who admitted acting as a lookout for her husband, received an enhanced sentence after the judge disclosed during the couple's combined five-hour sentencing hearing that Diana Toebbe tried to send her husband two letters from jail.

The letters, which were read in court, were intercepted before they could be delivered. In one of them, Diana Toebbe told her husband to flush the letter down a toilet after reading it. She encouraged him to lie about her involvement in the scheme and say she "didn't know anything about any of this."

The judge said she lacked genuine remorse and didn't take responsibility for her actions.

“This is an exceptional story, right out of the movies,” Groh said.

Prior to sentencing, Jonathan Toebbe described his battles with stress in taking on additional duties and his own battle with alcohol. He said he experienced warning signs of a nervous breakdown over 18 months that he failed to recognize.

“I believed that my family was in dire threat, that democracy itself was under collapse," he said. That belief overwhelmed him, he said, and led him to believe he had to take “precipitous action to try to save them from grave harm.”

Prosecutors said Toebbe abused his access to top-secret government information and repeatedly sold details about the design and performance of Virginia-class submarines to someone he believed was a representative of a foreign government but who was actually an undercover FBI agent.

Diana Toebbe, 46, who was teaching at a private school in Maryland at the time of the couple’s arrest last October, admitted she acted as a lookout at several prearranged “dead-drop” locations where memory cards containing the secret information were left behind.

The memory cards were devices concealed in objects such as a chewing gum wrapper and a peanut butter sandwich. The couple was arrested in October 2021 after Jonathan Toebbe placed a card in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

None of the information was classified as top secret or secret, falling into a third category considered confidential, according to previous testimony.

The couple was sentenced for their guilty pleas in September in federal court in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to one felony count each of conspiracy to communicate restricted data.

In August, Groh rejected their initial guilty pleas to the same charges, saying the sentencing options were “strikingly deficient” considering the seriousness of the case. The previous sentencing range agreed to by lawyers for Jonathan Toebbe had called for a potential punishment of up to 17 years in prison. Prosecutors had sought three years for Diana Toebbe.

During a hearing last December, Diana Toebbe's attorney, Barry Beck, asserted that the couple was looking to flee the United States due to their contempt for then-President Donald Trump.

During a search of the couple’s home, FBI agents found a trash bag of shredded documents, thousands of dollars in cash, valid children’s passports and a “go-bag” containing a USB flash drive and latex gloves, according to previous testimony.

She said her decision to participate in the scheme was “catastrophic,” as she is the mother of children ages 12 and 16, and that she should have tried to talk her husband out of it.

“I didn’t think of my children, who have suffered the most,” she said. “Their lives will forever be marked by the decision that I made.”

Groh said that choice was "deliberate and calculated.” She admonished Beck, who had labeled his client as merely an accomplice in seeking a lesser sentence.

“Your client put this country in great danger,” Groh told Beck. “No matter what you call it, the harm to this nation was great.”

The FBI has said the scheme began in April 2020, when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and expressed interest in selling operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information. That package was obtained by the FBI in December 2020 through its legal attaché office in an unspecified foreign country, setting off a months-long undercover operation.

An FBI agent posing as a foreign government's representative made contact with Toebbe, ultimately paying in cryptocurrency for the information Toebbe was offering.

Groh said about $54,000 of the cryptocurrency has been recovered. She imposed fines of around $50,000 to each defendant.