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Former Navy engineer who hid intel in a peanut butter sandwich pleads guilty

Former Navy engineer who hid intel in a peanut butter sandwich pleads guilty

A former Navy engineer accused of trying to sell sensitive secrets about the Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines to a foreign country by hiding them in a peanut butter sandwich changed his plea to guilty, federal court documents reveal.

Jonathan Toebbe’s wife, Diana Toebbe, also pleaded guilty after she was accused of helping him conduct surveillance to determine whether they were being followed.

The couple, of Annapolis, Maryland, had pleaded not guilty after their arrests last year. They changed their pleas to guilty this year to one felony count each of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. U.S. District Judge Gina Groh rejected the pleas last month, saying the sentencing options seemed “strikingly deficient” considering the seriousness of the charges.

A Homeland Security police officer walks with his sniffing dog outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Martinsburg, W.Va., on Oct. 12.Jose Luis Magana / AP file

At the time, the deal would have sent Jonathan Toebbe to prison for 12 years and Diana Toebbe for three years.

Under Tuesday’s new guilty plea, they would each face a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $100,000 fine, although prosecutors are asking for a sentence for Diana Toebbe at the lowest end of the guideline range.

Their attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Jonathan Toebbe, who started working with the Navy in 2012, was arrested last year in West Virginia on suspicion of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and other crimes. His wife, a former teacher in Maryland, was arrested on allegations that she assisted him.

Prosecutors said Jonathan Toebbe mailed a package of classified information in April 2020 to representatives of a foreign country that he was trying to develop a relationship with, according to a criminal complaint.

He offered to reveal more secrets in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency, the complaint said. Officials in the country, which authorities did not name, alerted the U.S., and the FBI reached out to Jonathan Toebbe, pretending to be from the country he contacted, it said.

The residence of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe in Annapolis, Md., on Oct. 10, a day after neighbors say FBI agents searched the house.Brian Witte / AP file

The complaint said Jonathan Toebbe wanted to deal only by email at first but later agreed to store data on memory cards that he would leave at designated “dead drop” locations.

During one drop in West Virginia, he concealed the memory card in plastic that he placed in a peanut butter sandwich, according to the complaint. During another, he put the card in a Band-Aid wrapper and a plastic bag, it said. The complaint described another instance in which it said Jonathan Toebbe put the card in a chewing gum package.

Prosecutors said the sensitive information included details about Virginia-class submarines, which are nuclear-powered fast attack warships.

By August 2021, Jonathan Toebbe had received $100,000 in Monero, a cryptocurrency, from the FBI agent he thought was his foreign contact, authorities said.

FBI Agent Peter Olinits, who worked on the case, previously said the Toebbes were identified when the investigators saw them return to a car that was registered to Diana Toebbe. Olinits said the couple wore hiking clothes and were “dressed to blend in.”

If the court does not accept the latest plea agreement, the Toebbes would again have the right to withdraw their guilty pleas.

Minyvonne Burke is a senior breaking news reporter for NBC News.

Ken Dilanian

,

Pete Williams

and

Tim Stelloh

contributed

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