A federal judge threw out two plea deals on Tuesday, saying the prison time wasn’t harsh enough for the naval engineer and his schoolteacher wife who admitted to allegedly hawking nuclear-powered submarine secrets to an undisclosed foreign government in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, of Annapolis, Maryland, were arrested by undercover federal agents in West Virginia last October after a series of “dead drops.” The conspiracy 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.
Mr. 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, The New York Times reports.
But Judge Gina M. Groh of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia forced them to withdraw their deals.
Groh reportedly said 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 federal judge read a statement submitted by Vice Adm. William Houston of the Navy, which condemned the damage to the submarine fleet and national security caused by the Toebbes.
“The nation has spent billions of dollars developing naval nuclear propulsion technology,” Judge Groh said, reading from the statement. “Mr. Toebbe’s actions have compromised the integrity of this protected information, thereby undercutting the military advantage afforded by decades of research and development.”
Houston said in the statement that Mr. 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.
CBS News reports the husband hid a memory card containing classified information inside a peanut butter sandwich during one of the exchanges. The New York Times reports that other drops included memory cards hidden in gum wrappers and Band-Aid boxes.
The judge called Mrs. Toebbe, who lost her credentials to work as a teacher, “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.”
According to The New York Times, 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.
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 yet to disclose which country the couple approached with the intent to sell confidential information.
Judge Groh set a new trial date for the Toebbes in January.