Jonathan and Diana Toebbe seemed similar an mean suburban couple, but the F.B.I. described them arsenic would-be spies successful a crippled to walk atomic secrets — and sloppy ones, too.
Oct. 11, 2021, 7:42 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — On July 28, Diana Toebbe posted a Facebook connection looking for a babysitter to instrumentality attraction of her children aboriginal connected the coming Saturday greeting for 5 to six hours.
Later the post, disposable lone to friends, was updated with the connection “*FOUND*.” And connected that Saturday, Ms. Toebbe accompanied her husband, Jonathan, to south-central Pennsylvania.
Unbeknown to Ms. Toebbe, she and her hubby were being watched by the F.B.I. arsenic they near their location successful Annapolis, Md. And the bureau’s agents continued to ticker successful Pennsylvania arsenic Jonathan Toebbe removed from his shorts pouch a 32-gigabyte representation paper hidden successful a sealed Band-Aid wrapper, which helium then, according to tribunal papers, placed successful a instrumentality acceptable up by an undercover F.B.I. operative.
The Toebbes, accused by the U.S. authorities of attempting to merchantability immoderate of America’s astir intimately guarded submarine propulsion secrets to a overseas government, are scheduled to look successful national tribunal successful West Virginia connected Tuesday. They volition look charges related to violating the Atomic Energy Act’s prohibition connected sharing atomic know-how.
For now, the large questions surrounding the mates — what state they are accused of trying to merchantability the atomic secrets to and what motivated them to instrumentality the hazard — stay unanswered.
Mr. Toebbe was described by acquaintances arsenic a diligent and organized grad pupil successful atomic physics who was commissioned successful the Navy arsenic an serviceman and adept successful submarine propulsion. He continued arsenic a civilian successful the Navy aft finishing his subject service, considered by immoderate a plum duty for the astir talented atomic physicists.
Ms. Toebbe was a 10-year seasoned of the Key School, a progressive backstage schoolhouse successful Annapolis, wherever she taught past and English. There, according to parents, she was prone to talking astir her Ph.D. successful anthropology from Emory University and her emotion of knitting. She was a respected adviser, some formally and informally, astatine the school.
“You could conscionable archer she was insanely smart,” said Craig Martien, 20, a 2019 postgraduate of Key School who worked intimately with Ms. Toebbe connected the yearbook and an after-school anthropology club. “She was precise affable and down-to-earth, and I got on with her precise well.”
When Mr. Martien went disconnected to Williams College, helium brought on a artifact squid that Ms. Toebbe had knitted. Like different Key graduates, Mr. Martien described her arsenic a beardown feminist and precise liberal.
She was taken aback by Trump’s 2016 election, helium said, and mentioned respective times that she was considering moving to Australia.
“She said she couldn’t basal the existent authorities of authorities and really had recovered immoderate occupation opportunities implicit there,” helium said.
On societal media platforms, Ms. Toebbe shared photos of her dogs, her children, meals cooking connected the stove, a household vacation, and selfies — mean scenes of an mean life, 1 acold antithetic than the amateur cloak-and-dagger enactment portrayed successful the F.B.I. affidavit.
Having made interaction with the as-yet undisclosed different state astir providing submarine secrets, the Toebbes were reluctant to exposure themselves successful an in-person meeting, according to the communicative laid retired successful tribunal documents by the F.B.I. But their evident tendency for cryptocurrency payments led them to hold to the undercover operative’s request they deposit accusation successful a dormant driblet determination — a determination that yet exposed their individuality to the F.B.I.
Evidence successful the tribunal documents suggests the overseas state the Toebbes allegedly tried to merchantability the accusation to was an ally, oregon astatine slightest thing of a partner, since it cooperated with the F.B.I. arsenic the sting cognition unfolded. While immoderate experts speculated France could person been the target, French officials said they were not progressive successful the incident.
The proceeding connected Tuesday volition beryllium short. So acold arsenic the authorities knows, neither Jonathan nor Diana Toebbe has a lawyer. Prosecutors asked the tribunal connected Monday to clasp Mr. Toebbe alternatively than granting him bail, saying helium could look beingness successful situation and was a formation threat. The magistrate justice could besides acceptable a proceeding day for the couple’s continued detention.
Public records searches turned up nary signs of fiscal distress that could supply a information for them to effort to merchantability American secrets.
Yet the F.B.I. affidavit portrayed the mates arsenic consenting to instrumentality risks for the committedness of payments successful a cryptocurrency called Monero.
In February, F.B.I. agents, posing arsenic a typical of the overseas country, projected an in-person meeting. The response, which was signed “Alice,” a communal place-holder sanction successful subject cryptography, wrote that “face to look meetings are precise risky for me, arsenic I americium definite you understand,” according to the affidavit. The writer past projected passing accusation electronically successful speech for $100,000 successful the cryptocurrency.
“Please retrieve I americium risking my beingness for your payment and I person taken the archetypal step. Please assistance maine spot you fully,” the enactment to the undercover F.B.I. agents read.
The F.B.I. agents past pressed for a neutral driblet location. The effect came a fewer days later: “I americium acrophobic that utilizing a dormant driblet determination your person prepares makes maine precise vulnerable,” the enactment from “Alice” said, according to the affidavit. “If different funny parties are observing the location, I volition beryllium incapable to observe them. I americium not a professional, and bash not person a squad supporting me.”
The enactment went connected to suggest that the writer would take a driblet determination for the encrypted files. The F.B.I. agents responded that they would springiness archetypal $10,000 past $20,000 successful cryptocurrency astatine a driblet determination of their choosing.
“I americium atrocious to beryllium truthful stubborn and untrusting, but I cannot hold to spell to a determination of your choosing,” the effect from “Alice” said. “I indispensable see the anticipation that I americium communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my archetypal connection and is attempting to exposure me.”
The writer adjacent projected that the state supply reassurance by sending a awesome from its analyzable successful Washington implicit Memorial Day weekend.
Writing from an encrypted Proton message account, “Alice” said the awesome had been received, and agreed to driblet the worldly astatine the determination chosen by the undercover operative — a mistake successful tradecraft, immoderate experts said.
“It was somewhat astonishing that idiosyncratic who has studied submarine warfare follows the F.B.I.’s absorption to aboveground for these supposedly clandestine driblet offs,” said Michael Atkinson, a erstwhile inspector wide for the quality community.
The willingness connected the portion of the state to convey the unspecified awesome suggests its practice with the United States passim the investigation. Mr. Atkinson said it was precise antithetic for a overseas state to let its embassy oregon different installation to beryllium utilized to nonstop a awesome to a fishy being pursued by the F.B.I.
Mr. Atkinson, present a spouse astatine the instrumentality steadfast Crowell & Moring, said a akin mendacious emblem cognition by the F.B.I. involving a authorities idiosyncratic trying to merchantability secrets to an state resulted successful a situation condemnation of 13 years pursuing a plea bargain.
At the Key School, wherever Ms. Toebbe taught, and successful their Annapolis neighborhood, colleagues, students and neighbors tried to process the apprehension of the mates and the accusations against them.
Luke Koerschner, 20, a 2019 Key School postgraduate present astatine Michigan State University, was successful Ms. Toebbe’s advisory radical for 4 years. He described her arsenic “very affable and welcoming,” an outgoing teacher who loved to cheer connected her students successful the school’s cornhole tournaments.
Matthew Nespole, the caput of the Key School, said helium was “shocked and appalled” to larn of the charges against the Toebbes and that the schoolhouse “supports the medication of justness by the F.B.I. and NCIS, and volition cooperate with the investigation.” The Key School placed Ms. Toebbe connected permission indefinitely.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Brenda Wintrode and JoAnna Daemmrich reported from Annapolis. Kitty Bennett contributed research. David E. Sanger successful Washington contributed reporting.