A federal judge sentenced a naval nuclear engineer and his wife to more than 19 years in prison Wednesday after pleading guilty to charges of hawking nuclear-powered submarine secrets to an undisclosed foreign government in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.
Department of the Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison, and his wife, Diana Toebbe, was sentenced to more than 21 years in prison by U.S. District Judge Gina Groh of the Northern District of West Virginia.
Groh sentenced Mrs. Toebbe to a longer sentence after authorities intercepted two letters she gave her husband from jail asking him to lie about her involvement in the plan and flush the letters down the toilet.
“This is an exceptional story, right out of the movies,” Groh said, according to The Associated Press, during their sentencing on Wednesday, adding the former naval engineer’s “actions and greedy, self-serving intentions placed military service members at sea and every citizen of this country in a vulnerable position and at risk of harm from adversaries.”
Department of Justice authorities echoed the judge, saying the couples conspiracy to sell restricted defense information placed the U.S. military and the nation’s security at risk.
Toebbe and his wife, of Annapolis, Maryland, were arrested by undercover federal agents in West Virginia last October after a series of “dead drops” in a conspiracy that began in April 2020 when the husband allegedly sent a package with military documents and contact information.
The apparent plot, however, fell apart almost immediately when Brazilian intelligence officials notified the Federal Bureau of Investigations of the couple’s activities. The couple later pleaded guilty in February to espionage charges.
Toebbe, who had been trained in nuclear propulsion and handling classified data, could have allowed foreign military powers to close the gap with the U.S. and would take extraordinary effort and resources to restore, according to a statement submitted by U.S. Navy Vice Adm. William Houston.
Toebbe hid a memory card containing classified information inside a peanut butter sandwich during one of the exchanges. Other drops included memory cards hidden in gum wrappers and Band-Aid boxes.
The judge called Mrs. Toebbe, a private schoolteacher who lost her credentials, “a felon of the worst kind.”
“That is why the 36 months troubles me,” Groh said, according to The New York Times. “There are lower-level drug dealers that go to prison for way longer than 36 months.”
Mrs. Toebbe’s former students reportedly said the high school teacher had been openly critical of former President Donald Trump while jesting about leaving the United States.
Toebbe, who led the pair in the alleged national security crime, initially agreed to a 12-year sentencing plea deal, while his wife, who only acted as a lookout, agreed to serve three years.
Before authorities sentenced Toebbe, he argued taking on additional duties caused him stress, and he experienced warning signs of having a nervous breakdown.
“I believed that my family was in dire threat, that democracy itself was under collapse,” he said, which led him to take “precipitous action to try to save them from grave harm.”
Groh forced them to withdraw their deals, adding she would only accept a plea deal for both parties within the sentencing guidelines, which subjects both guilty parties to more than 15 years in prison.
The couple had allegedly asked the so-called foreign spies for assistance in escaping to another country after completing the espionage act.
Government officials have not disclosed which country the couple approached with the intent to sell confidential information.