CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife withdrew their guilty pleas Tuesday in a case involving an alleged plot to sell secrets about American nuclear-powered warships after a federal judge rejected plea agreements that had called for specific sentencing guidelines.
The sentencing range agreed to by lawyers for Jonathan Toebbe had called for a potential punishment between roughly 12 years and 17 years in prison. Prosecutors said Tuesday that such a sentence would be one of the most significant imposed in modern times under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Prosecutors also sought three years for Diana Toebbe.
U.S. District Judge Gina Groh said that while she generally honors plea agreements, in this case she said the sentencing options were “strikingly deficient” considering the seriousness of the charges.
Groh said the act to which the couple pleaded guilty was done “for selfish and greedy reasons, but could have caused great harm” to the Navy and others.
“I don’t find any justifiable reasons for accepting either one of these plea agreements,” Groh said.
Wearing orange jail jumpsuits and seated at separate tables, the couple then separately withdrew their guilty pleas, leading Groh to set a trial date for Jan. 17.
Prosecutors said Jonathan Toebbe abused his access to top-secret government information and repeatedly sold details about the design elements and performance characteristics 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, who was teaching at a private school in Maryland at the time of the couple’s arrest last October, was accused of acting as a lookout at several prearranged “dead-drop” locations at which 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 after he placed a memory card at a dead drop location 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 testimony Tuesday.
The FBI has said the scheme began in April 2020, when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and wrote that he was interested in selling to that country operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information. He included in the package, which had a Pittsburgh return address, instructions to his supposed contact for how to establish a covert relationship with him, prosecutors said.
That package was obtained by the FBI in December 2020 through its legal attaché office in the unspecified foreign country. That set off a monthslong undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of a foreign country made contact with Toebbe, ultimately paying $100,000 in cryptocurrency in exchange for the information Toebbe was offering.
Jonathan Toebbe, who held a top-secret security clearance through the Defense Department, had agreed as part of the plea deal to help federal officials with locating and retrieving all classified information in his possession, as well as the cryptocurrency paid to him.
The country to which Jonathan Toebbe was looking to sell the information has not been identified in court documents and was not disclosed in court.
FBI agents who searched the couple’s home 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 court testimony last year.
During a December 2021 hearing, Diana Toebbe’s lawyers denied prosecution assertions that cited 2019 messages exchanged by the couple in which she had contemplated fleeing the United States to avoid arrest. Instead, the defense said it was contempt for then-President Donald Trump as the reason behind the couple’s emigration plans.