(NewsNation) — Is it a Hollywood movie or real life? That’s what a federal judge wanted to know when sentencing a Maryland couple to decades behind bars for trying to sell naval secrets to a foreign government. In return, the couple were paid tens of thousands of dollars before being caught.
Jonathan Toebbe was a naval nuclear scientist. His wife, Diana, worked as a teacher at a private school. But in the end, they were caught in a high-stakes game of espionage that the Justice Department says the Toebbes initiated and carried out until the FBI brought it all to an end.
It was a life much different from their quiet life in suburban Annapolis, Maryland, with their two children. But that was before Jonathan Toebbe stole thousands of pages of restricted information for more than a year, then reached out to the Brazilian government, offering to sell the high-level data about the U.S. nuclear submarine program. Luckily, the Brazilian government tipped off the FBI, rather than use the information against the U.S.
An FBI agent continued to pose as a foreign representative for months, setting up “dead drops” and paying the couple in crypto currency for the restricted information.
Jonathan Toebbe made the hidden drops of information while his wife was the lookout. Toebbe even communicated with people who he thought were the Brazilians, asking how to improve his spy work and how to reduce the risk to everyone involved.
He used everyday items to conceal encrypted SD cards, using a peanut butter sandwich, a chewing gum wrapper and a Band-Aid wrapper. Authorities arrested the couple in October 2021 after Jonathan Toebbe dropped a card in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
The couple tried a plea deal, but U.S. District Judge Gina Groh rejected it, saying it didn’t match the severity of their actions of selling U.S. secrets to a foreign government. According to Groh, their story “reads like a crime novel or a movie script” and Jonathan Toebbe’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.”
The couple was sentenced this week to 19 and 21 years behind bars for conspiracy to sell restricted data.
Diana Toebbe ended up with a longer sentence than her husband because she sent him two letters while he was in prison awaiting sentencing. She asked him to lie about her involvement, telling him to flush the letters down the toilet after reading them. Those letters were intercepted by the FBI.
“This is an exceptional story, right out of the movies,” Groh said.
Diana Toebbe’s attorney said at a December hearing that the couple were hoping to flee the U.S. due to their contempt for then-President Donald Trump. Following a search of the couple’s home, FBI agents reported finding shredded documents, thousands of dollars in cash, passports and a “go bag” that included a USB flash drive.
Prior to sentencing, Jonathan Toebbe spoke of his own struggles with managing stress and alcohol usage.
“I believed that my family was in dire threat, that democracy itself was under collapse,” he said.
Jonathan Toebbe reportedly believed he had to take “precipitous action to try to save them from grave harm.”
Diana has described her choice to participate as “catastrophic,” citing her two children, ages 12 and 16.
“I didn’t think of my children, who have suffered the most,” she said. “Their lives will forever be marked by the decision that I made.”
Still, Groh said their decisions were “deliberate and calculated” and that they put their country in danger.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.