By Paul Gessler

BALTIMORE, Md. (WJZ) — A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife could both face life in prison if convicted of espionage charges related to a plot to sell military secrets to a foreign government.

Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and his wife, Diana, 45, both of Annapolis, appeared Tuesday in federal court in West Virginia to face charges of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and communication of restricted data in violation of the Atomic Energy Act.

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The couple were ordered to remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending the outcomes of their detention hearings on Friday morning.

Each of the charges carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, a $100,000 fine and a five-year term of supervised release, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert W. Trumble told the couple.

“The consequences here are monumental. They are seeking monumental consequences” said University of Maryland School of Law professor Michael Greenberger, who has no ties to the case.

The charges stem from a federal complaint that accuses the couple of trying to sell confidential information, including nuclear submarine schematics, to an unnamed foreign power.

According to the complaint, the plot began with an unsolicited package Jonathan Toebbe sent to a foreign government in April 2020, a package that was later handed over to the FBI.

“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,” Toebbe allegedly wrote.

But instead of making contact with foreign military intelligence, Toebbe was put in touch with the FBI, which set up a sting operation using an undercover agent who posed as a foreign contact.

Authorities say after working out details for payment and delivery of the data, Toebbe crossed state lines on multiple occasions to drop off memory cards containing sensitive data as part of the arrangement.

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According to the complaint, the memory cards were concealed inside ordinary items that included everything from a peanut butter sandwich to a pack of gum.

At times, the complaint said, Diana Toebbe acted as a lookout for her husband.

The year-long investigation resulted in the couple’s arrests Saturday in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

Greenberger, the law professor, said there are expectations in place when someone, such as Toebbe, is granted multiple high-level security clearances.

“One expects, quite rightly, the people handling this information are loyal to the United States government,” Greenberger said.

Based on financial affidavits detailing the couple’s income, assets and debts, they will be assigned court-appointed attorneys to represent them in court.

Notably, Diana Toebbe hedged somewhat when asked if the court documents accurately represented the couple’s finances. “To the best of my knowledge, which is limited,” she said.

The Toebbes are due in court Friday for detention hearings.

The judge also set preliminary examination hearings for Oct. 20 to determine if probable cause exists for the couple’s charges.

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Paul Gessler