MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The Maryland couple accused of attempting to sell some of America’s most closely guarded nuclear submarine secrets made their first appearance in court since they were arrested over the weekend.
The couple, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, were accused of selling nuclear propulsion secrets to an undercover F.B.I. officer during a series of dead drops over the course of this year featuring memory cards hidden in peanut butter sandwiches, gum packages and Band-Aid wrappers.
The couple were both charged with communication of restricted data and conspiracy to communicate restricted data, charges that could lead to life in prison. Neither of them was asked to enter a plea during their short appearances.
The hearing in federal court in Martinsburg, W.Va., for Jonathan Toebbe was over in five minutes. The magistrate judge, Robert W. Trumble, said Mr. Toebbe qualified for a court-appointed lawyer and set two hearings: one on Friday for a hearing on his continued detention and a preliminary hearing in the case for next week.
Mr. Toebbe, wearing a mask to protect against Covid-19, sat in an orange prison jump suit. A former naval officer, he had close-cropped military haircut, and responded to the judge in a clear, unwavering voice.
Ms. Toebbe, with short graying hair and also wearing an orange jumpsuit, was brought in second, after her husband had left the courtroom. They were not able to see each another. They have two school-age children.
She too was granted permission for a court-appointed lawyer. The court set similar detention and preliminary hearing dates for her.
The Justice Department has sought the continued detention of both Jonathan Toebbe, a nuclear propulsion expert who after leaving the military worked for the U.S. Navy as a civilian, and his wife, a history and English teacher, saying they were flight risks because they face life sentences if convicted.
The initial dead drop of information where the F.B.I. first identified the Toebbes took place in West Virginia, which is why the government brought charges there.
Jonathan Toebbe could face more than 15 years in prison should he decide to plead guilty, based on similar cases where government scientists have tried to sell undercover secrets to a foreign power.
The case has sent waves of confusion through Annapolis, Md., where they lived, and the private school where Ms. Toebbe taught.
Friends of Jonathan Toebbe have struggled to square the devoted father and organized scientist they knew with the image presented in court documents of a sloppy amateur spy.
Ms. Toebbe was a teacher and yearbook adviser with a devoted following among students and graduates who admired her fierce feminism and progressive outlook.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.