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Wife of Navy nuclear engineer pleads guilty in submarine spy case

Under the terms of her plea deal, Diana Toebbe will serve a sentence of not more than 36 months, the Justice Department said.

A former private school teacher will serve up to three years in prison after pleading guilty Friday to helping her husband in what both believed was a plot to sell closely guarded American secrets to a foreign power.

The plea by Diana Toebbe, 46, comes after her husband admitted guilt on Monday, Valentine's Day, and implicated her in his crimes. Both are being held in a jail in West Virginia, where they were arrested in October.

The Justice Department said Diana Toebbe, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data related to nuclear designs, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of up to life in prison. 

Under the terms of her deal, she will serve a sentence of not more than 36 months, the Justice Department said. A federal judge will decide the exact sentence after a pre-sentence investigation and hearing.   

Her husband, Jonathan Toebbe, 43, is a former Navy nuclear engineer who was accused of trying to pass information about designs for nuclear-powered submarines to an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative of a foreign government. Prosecutors say Toebbe hid memory cards containing the sensitive information inside peanut butter sandwiches, Band-aid wrappers and chewing gum packages.

Jonathan Toebbe,Diana Toebbe
A Homeland Security police officer walks with his sniffing dog outside of the U.S. District Courthouse in Martinsburg, W.Va., on Oct. 12, 2021.Jose Luis Magana / AP file

At a hearing Monday in a West Virginia courtroom, Jonathan Toebbe pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. The plea agreement calls for a possible sentence of 12 ½ to 17 ½ years in prison. 

Prosecutors said in court filings that the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe, who worked on the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, mailed a package of restricted information to representatives of a foreign country, offering to reveal many more secrets in exchange for up to $5 million in cryptocurrency.

After the U.S. government learned about the offer, the FBI reached out to him, pretending to be from the country he contacted. The country was not identified in the court filings. 

Prosecutors said he at first wanted to deal strictly by email but later agreed to store the data on SD cards, which he would leave at designated “dead drop” locations.

Investigators said he concealed the cards in half a peanut butter sandwich, a chewing gum package and a sealed Band-Aid wrapper, making the drops in June, July, August and October. Court documents said the cards included designs for the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines, nuclear-powered fast-attack vessels incorporating stealth technology that are able to fire cruise missiles.

By Aug. 28, the FBI had paid Jonathan Toebbe $100,000 in cryptocurrency, the documents say. The next day, he sent an email thanking the person he believed was his foreign intelligence handler, according to the court documents.

“One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits,” he wrote, according to the court filings. 

“I will always remember your bravery in serving your country and your commitment to helping me,” he added, the filings say.

Jonathan Toebbe has agreed to give back the $100,000 and the restricted data he took. 

The couple, who live in Maryland, has two young children.

The plea documents don’t specify a motive, but court documents previously filed in the case suggest the company had money problems and also were extremely frustrated with the direction of the country under President Donald Trump.