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Navy nuclear engineer and wife charged with trying to sell submarine secrets appear in court

A Maryland-based naval nuclear engineer and his schoolteacher wife who were charged with selling secret nuclear power submarine information to someone they believed was a foreign agent made their first appearance in court on Tuesday. 

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe appeared separately before a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of West Virginia, where they were read the espionage-related charges against them and informed of their constitutional rights as defendants. 

Jonathan Toebbe, accused of trying to sell naval nuclear technology, appears in court, Oct. 12, 2021. Sketch by William Hennessy Jr.

Prosecutors are requesting the two be detained pending trial, citing their risk of fleeing and the severity of the charges brought against them. A detention hearing has been scheduled for Friday, October 15.

Wearing an orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit, Jonathan Toebbe appeared before the court first, chains binding his hands and feet. During the brief proceedings, he was unfailingly polite, answering every question, "yes, sir" or "yes, your honor," as he faced the judge.

Diana Toebbe, accused of trying to sell naval nuclear technology, appears in court, Oct. 12, 2021.   Sketch by William Hennessy Jr.

Next, Diana Toebbe, also clad in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, entered the courtroom. When asked about her financial status, she admitted she had only limited knowledge of her personal finances. The judge then asked if there was anything in her financial statement that she needed to correct, she shrugged said she didn't know very much.

Both of the Toebbes submitted financial affidavits qualifying them for court-appointed lawyers. 

The Justice Department alleges Jonathan Toebbe, through his Pentagon-issued national security clearance, had access to restricted data about naval nuclear technology and used that access to send a package to an unnamed foreign government on April 1, 2020.

He is accused of then corresponding with someone he believed to be an agent of another country, but who was actually an undercover FBI agent. Court documents claim the Navy engineer agreed to sell restricted data to the undercover agent for tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.

Jonathan Toebbe, accompanied by his wife, then went to West Virginia and placed a memory card inside half of a peanut butter sandwich, the government alleges, with Diana Toebbe serving as a lookout. According to the Justice Department, the card contained restricted data about submarine nuclear reactors. 

The Navy engineer continued with more "dead drops," leaving memory cards inside a sealed bandaid wrapper and a chewing gum package, and he mentioned to the individual he thought was a foreign agent that the couple might need help fleeing the country. 

If convicted, the maximum sentence the couple could face is life imprisonment.

The Toebbes remain in jail pending Friday's hearing.  

Editor's note: Although an earlier version of this article said that the Toebbes could face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment or death if convicted, which was noted in the detention memo, the specific charge, communication of restricted data, carries a maximum punishment of life in prison. The article has been updated.

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