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Maryland couple to stay in federal custody on espionage charges

Following an 18-month FBI investigation, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe are accused of passing nuclear secrets to someone they believed was working for a foreign government.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (CN) — A Maryland couple arrested over the weekend on charges of trying to sell classified nuclear secrets made their first appearance in federal court Tuesday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble ordered Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and Diana Toebbe, 45, of Annapolis, Maryland, remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending a hearing on the government’s motion to keep them detained before trial on espionage-related charges. Trumble scheduled those hearings for 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Friday morning.

The magistrate also appointed Nick Compton with the federal public defender’s office as Jonathan’s counsel and scheduled a preliminary hearing for Oct. 20. As of Tuesday afternoon, Diana had not been appointed an attorney.

The Toebbes are currently incarcerated at the Eastern Regional Jail and Correctional Facility in Martinsburg, West Virginia, according to federal prosecutors.

According to the criminal complaint against the couple, Jonathan, a nuclear engineer at the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program with national security clearance, sent a package to a foreign government in April 2020 containing restricted data about the design of nuclear-powered warships.

The package allegedly contained a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, return address with a sample of the classified information and instructions on how to obtain more using covert means.

During the next 18 months, prosecutors claim Jonathan continued correspondence with a person who he thought was the foreign government’s representative, but was actually an undercover FBI agent.  As a “good-faith” gesture, the FBI says the agent paid Jonathan $10,000 in cryptocurrency followed by another payment of $20,000 when he and Diana, acting as a lookout, made a “dead drop” of information at a location in West Virginia.

The FBI recovered a blue memory card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich, court documents say. The records on the memory card included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors.

The Justice Department describes those submarines as "cruise missile fast-attack submarines, which incorporate the latest in stealth, intelligence gathering, and weapons systems technology."

The memory card also allegedly included a typed message that said, in part: "I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust."

Afterwards, prosecutors claim the Toebbes made multiple other dead drops of restricted data in locations in eastern Virginia and around Martinsburg, West Virginia. According to court documents, the Toebbes received an additional $70,000 for those drops.

The Toebbes were arrested Saturday in West Virginia following a dead drop in Jefferson County of another SD card.

The complaint alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials.

Since 2012, Jonathan has held a top-secret security clearance specializing in naval nuclear propulsion and has worked at a government-owned laboratory in the Pittsburgh- area specializing in nuclear power for the U.S. Navy.

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