Spy Games: Why Ex-Kent Denver Teachers Have Been Charged With Espionage

Diana and Jonathan Toebbe strike a pose.
Courtesy of CBS4 Denver
Diana and Jonathan Toebbe strike a pose.
Today, October 12, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe are scheduled to make an appearance at a federal courthouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on charges that they sold restricted information about nuclear-powered submarines to an FBI agent posing as a representative of a foreign government.

A few short years ago, the Toebbes made very different appearances — in classrooms before students at Kent Denver, among the most prestigious private education facilities in Colorado, where they worked as teachers.

Oh, yeah: The case against the couple turns in part on the contents of a peanut butter sandwich, a package of gum and a Band-Aid container.

Kent Denver has confirmed that both Toebbes worked in the science department at the school, and the institution is mentioned prominently on their LinkedIn pages, which are still online. The page for Jonathan, 42, cites his employment dates as 2005-2008, after which he attended the Colorado School of Mines, where he earned a master's degree in nuclear engineering while racking up a grade point average of 3.98. This background no doubt helped him land his most recent gig, as a Department of the Navy nuclear engineer assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, shorthanded as Naval Reactors. As part of the job, he was given national security clearance through the U.S. Department of Defense and had access to restricted info about nuclear sub design.

Diana's LinkedIn page, which reveals that her maiden name was Smay, is out of date; it contends that the 45-year-old started at Kent Denver in 2005 and remains on the staff. But it also points out that she began teaching at the Key School in Annapolis, Maryland, where the Toebbes now live with their two children, in August 2012.

The Justice Department release about the pair, issued on October 10, notes that they were arrested on October 9 in Jefferson County, West Virginia, by agents with the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. "For almost a year," it states, the couple "sold information known as Restricted Data concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, that person was an undercover FBI agent. The Toebbes have been charged in a criminal complaint alleging violations of the Atomic Energy Act."

On April 1, 2020, the department's account continues, Jonathan allegedly "sent a package to a foreign government, listing a return address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, containing a sample of Restricted Data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional Restricted Data." Shortly thereafter, he's accused of "corresponding via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government. The individual was really an undercover FBI agent. Jonathan Toebbe continued this correspondence for several months, which led to an agreement to sell Restricted Data in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency."

More than a year later, on June 8, 2021, the undercover agent "sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Jonathan Toebbe as 'good faith' payment. Shortly afterwards, on June 26, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe traveled to a location in West Virginia. There, with Diana Toebbe acting as a lookout, Jonathan Toebbe placed an SD card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich at a pre-arranged 'dead drop' location. After retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Jonathan Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment. In return, Jonathan Toebbe emailed the undercover agent a decryption key for the SD Card. A review of the SD card revealed that it contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors."

The feds contend that the scheme didn't end there. On August 28, "Jonathan Toebbe made another 'dead drop' of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package," the department release continues. "After making a payment to Toebbe of $70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key for the card. It, too, contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. The FBI arrested Jonathan and Diana Toebbe on October 9, after he placed yet another SD card at a pre-arranged 'dead drop' at a second location in West Virginia."

The affidavit against the Toebbes is 24 pages long and contains intricate details about even more alleged activities, including a drop at a Pennsylvania location on July 31, 2021, during which an SD card was hidden "in a sealed Band-Aid wrapper with a Band-Aid inside a clear Zip Lock bag." The card is said to have been accompanied by a long message from "Alice," the code name prosecutors believe Jonathan used. The text concludes with this: "My friend, we have both taken considerable risks to reach this point and with good luck will soon have much to celebrate!"

That luck didn't hold. And now, Kent Denver students from years gone by will have very different reactions when they think of their old science teachers, whose alleged spy games warranted a statement from Attorney General Merrick Garland. "The complaint charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation," Garland states. "The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice."

Click to read the United States of America v. Jonathan Toebbe and Diana Toebbe.