It is broad daylight early on a Sunday afternoon and, just as in any other shopping centre up and down the country, The Mall in Luton is packed with families dragging bored children in and out of chain stores.
Suddenly, shouts and piercing screams erupt, the crowd parts and three teenagers start slashing at one another with knives, including a terrifying 18in machete.
Two run off – one of them wounded – as the third boy collapses to the ground with a terrible injury, blood spurting scarlet on to the polished marble floor. By the time security guards arrive at the scene, his life is ebbing away.
It was nothing more than a ‘wrong’ look that led to the senseless death of 18-year Azaan John Kaleem – the second violent episode at the heart of tomorrow’s documentary
Outnumbered: CCTV shows gang surrounding Azaan and his girlfriend
As one guard tries to stem the flow from a massive gash in the 17-year-old’s thigh, he pleads with the boy: ‘Hold my hand and keep your eyes open.’
These horrific scenes, caught on CCTV, are a devastating depiction of Knife Crime Britain – a tide of violence rolling across towns and cities across the country.
In Luton, many miles from London’s knife crime hotspots such as Islington or Tottenham, cases of stabbings have almost doubled over the last five years.
And no region is immune, with national crime statistics showing 40,000 blade-related incidents across the country in the year to September 2018.
Even this disturbing figure probably understates the total.
Brutal: Azaan is attacked, despite the appearance of a bystander. Shannon runs to escape
The terrifying trend is brought into sharp focus in tomorrow night’s special edition of Channel 4’s 24 Hours In Police Custody, in which TV cameras follow Bedfordshire detectives as they struggle to tackle a form of crime now so widespread it has become almost routine.
Tom Hamm is the detective sergeant who investigates the bloody Luton shopping centre knife fight.
He tells viewers: ‘I’m tired of coming into work thinking, ‘I wonder who is going to get stabbed today.’ I’ve never known it in ten years to be as bad as it is now. If you were to equate it to a disease, this would be a national emergency.’
It was nothing more than a ‘wrong’ look that led to the senseless death of 18-year Azaan John Kaleem – the second violent episode at the heart of tomorrow’s documentary.
Azaan had never been in trouble with the police and wasn’t even known to the four-man gang that killed him.
He’d been walking through Luton with his girlfriend, Shannon, when he made the mistake of exchanging looks with a boy on a bicycle on the other side of the street.
As Shannon explains it, the other boy put his hand inside his trousers as though to pull out a knife. Azaan reached towards his pocket to show he too was armed.
Felled: Azaan crumples on to the road, fatally wounded in the sustained attack
He had started carrying a knife for his own protection a year earlier after being badly beaten up – a terrible error.
The boy on the bike sped off and the incident appeared to have ended but minutes later CCTV cameras record a grey BMW pulling up alongside Azaan and his girlfriend. Even the police were shocked by the level of brutality that ensued.
Four boys emerge from the car and immediately set upon Azaan. One seems to punch him repeatedly – but is actually stabbing him, probably with a bladed knuckleduster he was later found to be carrying.
Azaan is left lying in the road with multiple stab wounds to his back, chest and face, blood pouring out as the gang flee. He died of his injuries in hospital two days later.
His heartbroken mother, Roseann Taylor, told me about her teenage son’s last moments.
‘When they declared Azaan brain dead, curtains were pulled around and piece-by-piece they turned off equipment,’ she said.
‘They allowed me to stand behind him. I stroked his hair and told him I loved him. We waited for his heartbeat to stop.
Left to die: The thugs leave stricken Azaan as the bystander stays to offer help
‘When I watched the CCTV and found out they didn’t know Azaan, it reminded me of a pack of animals seeking out their prey.
‘He was not a person, he was some ‘thing’ they wanted to attack.’
It was terrible twist of fate that Roseann had moved away from London to Luton when Azaan was a toddler. She believed Bedfordshire would be safer.
The men suspected of killing Azaan were identified thanks to a tip-off from a member of the public and were then rounded up by armed officers.
All four were known to police and one, 19-year-old Reece Bliss-McGrath, driver of the BMW, is shown in the film telling an officer: ‘When you’re not wearing that badge, I’ll slap that smile off your face.’
The interviews that follow are hard-going: three of the suspects – 18-year-old Rashaan Ellis, 19-year-old Callum Smith and 17-year-old Harrison Searle – answer ‘no comment’ to every question.
Ellis is said to be the main assailant, with the fearsome knuckle duster, but Smith is also accused of stabbing Azaan.
Bliss-McGrath is willing to talk, however, provided that the police can ensure his protection.
He tells detectives the four of them had been driving around in his newly purchased £2,500 BMW when Searle received a call from the boy on the bike to say Azaan had ‘pulled a knife’.
They decided to ‘go and do this’, Bliss-McGrath explains, before telling officers that Ellis is ‘the crazy one. He’s nuts, he’s hyped up. Like someone who takes coke’.
Flashpoint: Two of the knife-wielding youths, one brandishing a huge bladed weapon, square up in the shopping mall before one of them is stabbed
Bliss-McGrath believes the confession will allow him to walk free. After all, he didn’t deliver any of the fatal blows. But he is deluded, and the cameras show his face turning ashen as he is charged with ‘joint enterprise murder’ alongside the other three.
As one of the detectives explains: ‘With joint enterprise you don’t have to be the person who did the stabbing. If you think you didn’t play a part in it, it doesn’t matter.’
The gang were jailed for a total of 63 years.
The two teenagers stabbed and wounded in the shopping centre knife fight are lucky – they have recovered. But now, they and the other youth involved are sitting in Luton police station, charged with affray and wounding with intent.
They show not the slightest sign of fear or concern. Slouching, bored on plastic chairs, anyone would think they’d been arrested for stealing a packet of crisps.
Che Stephens, 17, escaped without injury after stabbing Luca Sanni in the leg. Stephens is shown footage of the fight and asked how he feels when he sees Sanni collapse. He refuses to answer. Even Sanni sticks to ‘no comment’ despite the terrible wound he suffered, as does Imani Pobi Da Silva, 17, who was slashed.
DS Hamm says: ‘The biggest obstacle we face in solving a lot of our stabbings is the reluctance of those involved to talk.
‘It is definitely out there that if something happens, you don’t tell the police. It’s frustrating, tiring and demoralising. They’re receiving some pretty serious injuries. Some of them are near death – and they don’t want to be seen as a grass.’
Stephens, who instigated the fight, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years after admitting wounding with intent, Sanni, who produced the machete, was sentenced to five years and Imani Pobi Da Silva 12 months.
‘Carrying a knife doesn’t make you safer. It’s either going to make you a criminal or a victim,’ the detective says.
‘But to go from a dirty look to dying is ridiculous. It just doesn’t make any sense.’
Terrifying: CCTV shows the bloody aftermath of the knife fight in the mall in front of horrified Sunday shoppers
Meanwhile, the brutal manner of Azaan John Kaleem’s death continues to haunt his mother.
She tells me: ‘I didn’t think [knife crime] was my problem because I didn’t think my son would ever be engaged in it.
‘I’ve never had the police come to the door, he’s never been in trouble. He’s just an average 18-year-old.
‘He’s not a threat to anybody and certainly wouldn’t harm anyone. I just want to know why.
‘Watching your child be murdered over and over again on CCTV during the court case was just gut-wrenching. I still play it over and over in my head. I feel like I’ve failed. At the very last moment I wasn’t there for him.
‘I’d do everything to hear him call me Mum again. The reality is, that will never happen.’
She now goes into schools to talk to children about the dangers of carrying knives but says that much, much more is needed – from everyone in society.
‘We all need to play a part, from the Government to the people who allow knives to be delivered through the letterbox, to the witnesses and man on the street who doesn’t go to help when they see someone being attacked,’ she says.
‘The younger generation has this energy but have nowhere to put it. Everything is disposable – even life.’
24 Hours In Police Custody airs tomorrow at 9pm on Channel 4.