By Torsten Ove

A former Pittsburgh-area nuclear engineer who tried to sell U.S. Navy nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign nation in an FBI sting operation will spend nearly 20 years behind bars for it. His wife got more than 21 years.  

A federal judge in West Virginia on Wednesday sentenced the pair, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, both of Annapolis, Md., after they’d pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy to communicate restricted data. 

U.S. District Judge Gina Groh, who had rejected a prior plea agreement because she said it was too lenient for the gravity of the case, sentenced Jonathan Toebbe, 44, to a term of 19 years and four months and fined him $45,700.  

Diana, 46, received 21 years and 10 months and a $50,000 fine. 

Jonathan Toebbe formerly worked at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, where he had access to nuclear submarine reactor data, and the case was investigated by the Pittsburgh FBI. 

“If not for the remarkable efforts of FBI agents, the sensitive data stolen by Mr. Toebbe could have ended up in the hands of an adversary of the United States and put the safety of our military and nation at risk,” said William Ihlenfeld, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, where the Toebbes were prosecuted. 

The Pittsburgh FBI office has jurisdiction over all of West Virginia. 

Mike Nordwall, the agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office, said the Toebbes were “willing to compromise the security of the nation” by selling nuclear reactor plans for the Navy’s Virginia-class subs. 

When he was arrested, Jonathan Toebbe worked for the Navy as a nuclear engineer assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.

He sent a package to a foreign government, with a return address in Pittsburgh, containing a sample of nuclear data and instructions for establishing a secret relationship to buy more data. 

Using encrypted email, he started corresponding with someone he thought was an agent from the foreign power but who was really an FBI agent. 

Over the months, Toebbe agreed to sell secret data in exchange for cryptocurrency. In June 2021, the agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe as a “good faith” payment.

A few weeks later, Toebbe visited a dead drop location in West Virginia to deposit a secure digital card containing the data concealed inside a peanut butter sandwich. After retrieving the card, the FBI sent Toebbe $20,000 in cryptocurrency. Toebbe then emailed the agent a decryption key for the SD card. 

Toebbe made another dead drop of an SD card in August, this time in Virginia, concealed inside a chewing gum package. The FBI gave him $70,000 and Toebbe emailed the decryption key. 

Agents arrested him and his wife in October 2021 after another dead drop in Jefferson County, W. Va. 

The case began in April 2020 when representatives of the foreign power received a package of nuclear secrets with the Pittsburgh return address.

The foreign contacts turned it over to the FBI office in that country.

The FBI began its undercover operation in December 2020 with an agent posing as a representative of the foreign power using the name “Bob.” Toebbe called himself “Alice.” 

Over the months, Toebbe and the agent discussed the mutual benefit of their relationship, never realizing he was dealing with law enforcement.  

“One day, when it is safe,” he wrote, “perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits.”  


Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at

Torsten Ove

Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at