In a stunning reversal of fortune, a former Key School teacher who helped her Navy engineer husband try to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign country received more than 20 years in prison — far more than her original plea called for, and more than her husband.

West Virginia U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh had rejected the previous plea agreements Annapolis couple Jonathan and Diana Toebbe had struck with federal prosecutors, which called for Diana Toebbe to serve three years and set a range between 12 and 17 years for her husband, Jonathan.

On Wednesday, Groh said their tale “reads like a crime novel or a movie script” and that 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.”

Diana Toebbe, who admitted acting as a lookout for her husband, received an enhanced sentence after the judge disclosed during the couple’s combined five-hour sentencing hearing that Diana Toebbe tried to send her husband two letters from jail.

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The letters, which were read in court, were intercepted before they could be delivered. In one of them, Diana Toebbe told her husband to flush the letter down a toilet after reading it. She encouraged him to lie about her involvement in the scheme and say she “didn’t know anything about any of this.”

The judge said she lacked genuine remorse and didn’t take responsibility for her actions.

“This is an exceptional story, right out of the movies,” Groh said.

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Diana Toebbe was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months. Her husband’s sentence is 19 years and four months.

The couple were arrested in Oct. 2021 after making the fourth in a series of pre-arranged “dead drops” of classified information in the West Virginia mountains. The parents of two dressed up like they were going on a hike, wearing backpacks and taking pictures of the scenery, then left an SD card inside a peanut butter sandwich.

The FBI said the scheme began in April 2020, when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and wrote that he was interested in selling operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information to that country. He included in the package instructions to his supposed contact for how to establish a covert relationship with him, prosecutors said.

That package was obtained by the FBI in December 2020 through its legal attaché office in the unspecified foreign country. That set off a monthslong undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of the foreign country made contact with Toebbe, ultimately paying $100,000 in cryptocurrency in exchange for the information.

The foreign government has not been identified in court proceedings, but The New York Times has previously identified the country as Brazil.

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The FBI found encrypted messages between the Toebbes discussing which countries they could sell the secrets to. Jonathan Toebbe wrote that one was wrong to even consider, while another was questionable, but his wife pushed for it.

“It’s not morally defensible, either,” Jonathan Toebbe wrote. “We convinced ourselves it was fine, but it really isn’t either, is it?”

Diana Toebbe responded: “I have no problems at all with it. I feel no loyalty to abstractions.”

They also discussed leaving the country. Jonathan Toebbe wrote that he was concerned about job prospects overseas, saying his engineering degree would be “worthless.”

“You keep saying that, but I don’t see the evidence,” Diana Toebbe responded. “I cannot believe that the two of us wouldn’t be welcomed and rewarded by a foreign government.”

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Prior to sentencing, Jonathan Toebbe described his battles with stress in taking on additional duties and his own battle with alcohol. He said he experienced warning signs of a nervous breakdown over 18 months that he failed to recognize.

“I believed that my family was in dire threat, that democracy itself was under collapse,” he said. That belief overwhelmed him, he said, and led him to believe he had to take “precipitous action to try to save them from grave harm.”

Diana Toebbe said her decision to participate in the scheme was “catastrophic,” as she is the mother of children ages 12 and 16, and that she should have tried to talk her husband out of it.

“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.”

Groh said that choice was “deliberate and calculated.” She admonished Diana Toebbe’s attorney, Barry Beck, who had labeled his client as merely an accomplice in seeking a lesser sentence.

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“Your client put this country in great danger,” Groh told Beck. “No matter what you call it, the harm to this nation was great.”

Groh said about $54,000 of the cryptocurrency has been recovered. She imposed fines of around $50,000 to each defendant.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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