A former Navy engineer and his wife were sentenced in federal court Wednesday to more than four decades in prison combined for plotting to sell U.S. nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign government.
U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh sentenced Jonathan Toebbe to 19 years and his wife, Diana, to 21 years, surpassing the minimum federal guidelines for both defendants.
In handing down her sentence, Groh cited a letter from a naval officer who gave a victim impact statement that said the “betrayal by the Toebbes” had long-standing consequences.
“The cumulative impacts of the defendant’s crime remains to be seen,” the judge said at the conclusion of Jonathan Toebbe’s sentencing.
Diana Toebbe and then her husband were sentenced at an hours-long hearing in a courtroom in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
“The sentence imposed here today is warranted … it reflects the serious nature of the offense” and the risk to national security, she said.
Jonathan Toebbe, who turned 44 on Wednesday, worked on projects related to naval nuclear propulsion of submarines since 2012, first as an active-duty officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant, then after 2017 as a civilian. He was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors. Diana Toebbe, 46, was a humanities teacher at Key School in the Annapolis area.
Prosecutors said the couple tried to peddle state secrets that had been saved on SD cards, concealed in peanut butter sandwiches or bubble gum packages. He would leave the items at predetermined locations while Diana Toebbe served as his lookout.
Undercover agents, posing as a foreign government, communicated with Toebbe for more than a year, using an encrypted email service to facilitate four document drops in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Toebbes were taken into custody.
Groh rejected their first plea deals in August, ruling that they were too lenient and “not in the best interest” of the country.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the couple wore bright orange jumpsuits and sat alongside their attorneys but did not speak to each other.
“I am in anguish over what I have done and I will never be able to make it right,” Jonathan Toebbe told the judge at Wednesday’s sentencing.
He told the judge he had a mental breakdown over the course of several months where he was struggling to support his wife and children who suffer from issues that he did not detail, citing their privacy. He also cited increasing stress at work and the effects of the pandemic and remote work.
The judge said she was not persuaded by his motivations, but that she found him to be remorseful for his actions, unlike his wife.
Much of the discussion earlier in the proceeding was about Diana Toebbe’s attempt to send her husband two notes in jail, urging him to plead guilty and spare her, which Groh said was evidence that the defendant was obstructing the investigation.
Groh read from a letter written by Diana Toebbe that she attempted to send her husband in December 2021 through the prison laundry service.
“You’ve put me in great danger … I could go to jail for life for something I didn’t do ... Tell them the truth, I didn’t know anything about any of this,” the letter said.
Diana Toebbe tried to send him a second note through the mail that was intercepted by jail staff.
Groh said Diana Toebbe‘s jail letters to her husband showed she had not fully accepted responsibility, because she denied her cooperation and part in the conspiracy. Therefore, the judge said she could not reduce her sentence based on federal sentencing guidelines.
Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a variety of factors, including a defendant’s past criminal history, the seriousness of the charges, and a defendant’s cooperation in a case.
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Groh said the guidelines, based on the factors in Diana Toebbe’s case, would recommend a sentence between 262 and 320 months.
But Diana Toebbe’s defense attorney, Barry Beck, argued his client did accept responsibility by pleading guilty and was cooperative with prosecutors and law enforcement.
“She was a housewife, a teacher,” he said. “She had no idea what this stuff meant. She did not steal it ... All of the essential elements of the offense were done by her husband.”
Diana Trobbe spoke briefly at the hearing, saying she should have talked her husband out of his plan, and that she wasn’t thinking about how her actions might harm service members. She said her actions have caused great harm to her family, especially her children.
“They deserve their mom and dad and their lives will be forever harmed by the decision I made,” she said.
Both Toebbes previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. Prosecutors initially had suggested a sentence between 15 1/2 and 19 1/2 years for Jonathan Toebbe and three years for Diana Toebbe.
The minimum sentence for the charge is 12 1/2 years.