A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife, who live in Annapolis, have been arrested on charges of trying to pass secrets to a foreign government, according to a federal court document unsealed Sunday.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe were taken into custody Saturday in Jefferson County, West Virginia, on espionage charges, the Justice Department said in a news release.
A federal court filing alleges the pair traveled to sites in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania over the course of this year, where Jonathan Toebbe dropped off memory cards with secret information that he believed an official of the foreign government would collect.
“The complaint charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. “The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice.”
Toebbe, 42, a former naval officer, held a top-secret security clearance and had worked on projects related to naval nuclear propulsion of submarines since 2012. He was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors.
His wife, 45, is a humanities teacher, according to the court filing. In a statement Sunday afternoon, the Key School in Annapolis confirmed she was on its Upper School faculty and had worked there for 10 years.
According to the filing, Jonathan Toebbe sent a package in April 2020 to the foreign government, which was described only as “COUNTRY1,” containing a sample of restricted data. An FBI official in that country obtained the package in December 2020 and began communicating with Toebbe, posing as an official from the foreign government.
The document said the package included a letter reading, “I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”
During the months of negotiations that ensued, the complaint alleges, Toebbe expressed multiple concerns about secrecy and safety. The complaint quoted him as writing this spring: “Is there some physical signal you can make that proves your identity to me? I could plan to visit Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day weekend. I would be just another tourist in the crowd. Perhaps you could fly a signal flag on your roof?”
The undercover FBI contact responded that “We will set a signal from our main building observable from the street.” The FBI then placed a signal “at a location associated with COUNTRY1″ over Memorial Day weekend, it said. Within days, the complaint said, Toebbe confirmed he’d received the signal and was ready to go ahead with a dead drop.
Toebbe allegedly agreed to provide data in exchange for thousands of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency. With his wife, Toebbe drove June 26 to a location in West Virginia to drop off an SD card, wedged in a peanut butter sandwich, containing restricted material that cannot be shared under the federal Atomic Energy Act, the complaint said. Diana Toebbe appeared to be “acting as a lookout” as her husband left the material, according to the court filing.
The next month, Toebbe and his wife drove to a location in south-central Pennsylvania and allegedly dropped off another SD card with hundreds of pages of schematics, drawings and other documents. The complaint described it as sealed in a Band-Aid wrapper on this occasion.
“This information was slowly and carefully collected over several years in the normal course of my job to avoid attracting attention and smuggled past security checkpoints a few pages at a time,” the FBI quoted Toebbe as messaging them. “I no longer have access to classified data so unfortunately cannot help you obtain other files.”
In late August, Jonathan Toebbe allegedly dropped off another SD card in Virginia, concealed in a chewing gum wrapper.
“There is only one other person I know is aware of our special relationship, and I trust that person absolutely,” the FBI said he wrote in an attached message. The court document said authorities believe that person was his wife.
When he and his wife arrived Saturday in Jefferson County, allegedly for another drop-off, they were arrested.
The complaint said Jonathan Toebbe told the person he was in contact with regarding leaking the data to that he had “considered the possible need” to leave the U.S. on short notice.
“Should that ever become necessary, I will be forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family. I surmise the first step would be unannounced travel to a safe third country with plans to meet your colleagues. We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose,” the document quoted him as writing.
Also Saturday, FBI agents were at the Toebbes’ home in the Hillsmere Estates neighborhood of Annapolis, FBI spokeswoman Samantha Shero said. The Toebbes bought the three-bedroom, split-level in 2014 for $430,000, according to state real estate records.
It’s three blocks from the private Key School, where Diana Toebbe taught. In its statement, the school said: “Key School is in no way connected to the investigation nor any personal criminal activity involving the Toebbes. Diana Toebbe has been suspended from Key School indefinitely pending the outcome of the investigation.”
The head of school, Matthew Nespole, said in his statement that the school was “shocked and appalled to learn of the charges.” He said the school didn’t know anything about the couple’s alleged criminal activities but would cooperate with the investigation if asked.
Neighbors huddled together across the street Sunday from the Toebbes’ home. While swapping stories about what they knew about them and what happened Saturday, they declined to give their names, but reported more than 15 police cars and at least 25 agents swarmed the brick house with light-brown siding for more than eight hours.
A woman who lives across the street got out a pair of binoculars and said agents took photos of everything. Other neighbors recounted how officers “ransacked” a white Mini Cooper: Everything was taken out, including the seats and a GPS computer.
Two FBI agents knocked on every door in the quiet, kid-friendly tree-lined neighborhood. They mostly wanted to know about the couple’s “patterns of life,” how they acted or whether they ever heard any arguing, the neighbors said.
The neighbors said they weren’t much help. The couple, who had two children, mostly kept to themselves. A man who lives two houses down from the Toebbes on the same side of the street said he’d try to greet them as he helped his wife tend their garden. But they usually didn’t acknowledge him.
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The information Jonathan Toebbe allegedly provided during the sting included information about Virginia-class nuclear submarine reactors, according to a court document.
The Navy on late Sunday afternoon provided a summary of Toebbe’s military career that said he joined the service in 2012 in Denver, studied at the Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island, and was a nuclear engineering officer based in northern Virginia and Pittsburgh. He became a lieutenant in 2016 and left active duty in 2017. He was a human resources officer in the reserves until he left the Navy in December 2020.
The court document noted that he had his top-secret clearance renewed in March 2020, just five days before he allegedly sent his package offering secret information to the foreign government.
It does not describe how the FBI obtained what it said was Toebbe’s original communication to COUNTRY1, nor how the FBI arranged to signal him over Memorial Day weekend from a location in Washington associated with that country.
The Toebbes are due to appear Tuesday in court in Martinsburg, West Virginia, according to online court records.
Messages left Saturday at two phone numbers listed in Jonathan Toebbe’s name were not returned.
Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and McKenna Oxenden and photographer Amy Davis contributed to this article.