A group of men armed with a samurai sword acted "like a pack of animals" when they "hunted down" and allegedly stabbed a 26-year-old man, a court was told.

Reading Crown Court heard how Luke O’Connell “did not stand a chance” after being stabbed in the backseat of a car which had been rammed by two vehicles in Watford on August 31, 2019. 

He died in what prosecuting lawyers called a “revenge attack” following a week of “tit for tat” arguments between two groups of men. 

Aamir Mustafa, 22, of no fixed address, Shahnavaz Azad, 27, of no fixed address, Umar Sarfraz, 21, of Whippendell Road, Watford, Mohammed Haroon Azad, 21, no fixed address, Mohammed Hamza Shah, 20, of Hagden Lane, Watford, Hamza Azad, 23, of Nicholas Close, Watford and Mohammed Hussnain, 24, of St. Georges Road, Watford have all been charged with Mr O’Connell’s murder.

They have all also been charged with wounding with intent after allegedly stabbing a man called Ryan Higgins on the same night. 

Another man, Mohammed Raja Azad, 48, of Nicholas Close, Watford, has been charged with perverting the course of justice.

All eight men deny the charges brought against them. 

Appearing at Reading Crown Court on Tuesday, July 27, to set out her case, prosecutor Kate Bex QC said: “This case is about the murder of Luke O’Connell, who was aged 26 years old when he was killed. 

“He was hunted down by a group of men acting like a pack of animals, armed with at least one enormous Samurai Sword.

“He died from a stab wound that went in through his back and very nearly came out the other side.”

Watford Observer: Stabbing victim Luke O'Connell. Photo: family handoutStabbing victim Luke O'Connell. Photo: family handout

The court heard how disputes began between Luke, Ryan and the defendants on Friday, August 23, when Luke’s car was damaged.

A fight in Gade car park in Watford had followed on August 26 involving Aamir Mustafa and Haroon Azad. 

Three days later a group of Asian men wearing balaclavas or hoods confronted Mr O’Connell outside his friend’s house asking to speak to Ryan Higgins, the court heard.

On Friday, August 30, Ryan, Luke, Danielle O’Donoghue and two other male friends were driving around in the evening when one of the men spotted a black Vauxhall Astra that “seemed to be everywhere they went”. 

Later, in the early hours of Saturday, August 31, Ryan drove past a dark blue Corsa and “had words” with the driver of the car. 

He would then drop off home one of his male friends as they “had a feeling something was going to kick off”.

After dropping the second male friend at the other friend’s house, the Golf Luke, Ryan and Danielle were in started to be chased by the black Astra from earlier in the evening, the court heard. 

Danielle said the car kept hitting theirs and that the “driving was so bad she thought she was going to die”.

As they came down Gammons Lane, they had then been hit on the driver’s side by a car coming towards them. 

The men in the vehicles then got out of the car and started hitting Ryan’s Golf, the prosecution claimed. 

Witnesses say they saw the men from the cars attacking the Golf from both sides in what was described as “utter rage”.

Watford Observer: The scene of the stabbing in Gammons Lane, WatfordThe scene of the stabbing in Gammons Lane, Watford

A number of neighbours heard a man say “I’m bleeding out, I’m bleeding out” at this point. 

Danielle had to jump out of the window to escape the attack, the court heard, and by the time she was out Ryan had managed to get out and was limping. 

She described seeing Mr O’Connell being hurt and “drenched in blood”, hanging “half in and half out of the car”.

Having tried to help him stand up, she realised there was blood everywhere and as he lent on a car to support his legs he collapsed. 

It was at this point that she saw a Samurai sword in the road with what looked like blood on it, the jury was told. 

Other witnesses described seeing a sheath for the sword in the road. 

The jury was shown aerial footage from a helicopter filmed in the hours after the incident that showed the sheath on the ground, as well as a coat worn by Luke and broken glass from the cars. 

A 999 call was made at 2.58am and police arrived at the scene seven minutes later, with paramedics attending a few minutes later. 

But by 3.17am Mr O’Connell had lost so much blood that attempts to start treatment were “impossible” as he had “already shut down”.

Watford Observer: The scene of the stabbing in Gammons Lane, WatfordThe scene of the stabbing in Gammons Lane, Watford

He was taken to Watford General Hospital but was pronounced dead at 4.17am. The cause of death was a stab wound to the back. 

Just ten minutes after the second friend was dropped off by Ryan Higgins, he had travelled to the house of the friend he dropped off first and knocked on the door. 

Higgins was bleeding after being stabbed in the leg, arm and back but refused to go to hospital. 

Five minutes later, Danielle joined the friends and told them “Luke is dead”. 

Upon examining the scene, the fingerprints of Haroon Azad were found by police on the samurai sword’s sheath, the court was told.

Officers also found four fresh cuts to the driver’s door on the Golf, made by a machete or sword, the court heard. 

Three dents on the rear passenger’s door were also discovered, and the front and back windows on the passenger side had been smashed too. 

Prosecutor Kate Bex QC said: “These findings are consistent with the assailant smashing the windows of the Golf and assaulting the occupants through the windows delivering multiple blows with both blunt and bladed instruments.”

Analysis of the blood staining in the car indicated Mr O’Connell would have been in the back of the Golf due to the amount of blood found here. 

He was “bleeding freely” while still inside the car, the prosecution said. 

Ms Bex told the jury: “The prosecution case is therefore that Luke O’Connell was attacked while he was trapped inside the car and unable to defend himself from a large group setting about the car with weapons. 

“You may think that it is fair to say that he did not stand a chance.”

Following the incident, CCTV picked up some of the defendants “calmly walking away” from the scene with one of them spotted carrying a weapon. 

The driver of the Astra, Aamir Mustafa, began to lay a “false trail” for police, the prosecution said, after arriving home to tell his brother his car had been stolen. 

Hamza Shah also told Aamir Mustafa’s brother the car had been stolen, the court was told.

Shah was the first of the group to be arrested at 5.39am on suspicion of murder. 

Shahnavaz Azad had chosen to stay at his grandparent’s house in the hours following the attack which was in a different part of Watford. 

Watford Observer: The scene of the stabbing in Gammons Lane, Watford.The scene of the stabbing in Gammons Lane, Watford.

He was the first of the three Azad brothers to be arrested on September 4, 2019. 

Haroon Azad fled Watford to Luton following the altercation. Having heard his brother had been arrested, he attempted to flee the country to Pakistan after his brother was arrested but was detained just before he boarded his plane. 

Records on his phone showed he searched for ‘Watford stabbing’ and ‘best solicitor in London’ online after the attack, the court was told.

His father, Raja Azad, booked and paid for his son’s flights to Pakistan and was later charged with perverting the course of justice, the court heard.

Umar Sarfaz was arrested on November 9, 2019.

Hamza Azad fled Watford after the stabbings, changing his phone number several times. 

He was eventually arrested on November 13, 2019, when police forced entry to his Birmingham house. 

Having heard police barge into his home, Azad “took steps to destroy his mobile phone” as police found it floating in a large cup of Coca-cola from McDonald’s.

Hamza Shah, the driver of the Corsa, was arrested after receiving treatment for the injuries he suffered in the incident. 

Mohammed Hussnain fled to Nottingham before boarding a flight to Islamabad in Pakistan on September 2, 2019. 

He claimed his departure had nothing to do with the incident, however, and that he had flown away to look after an elderly relative. 

Hussnain returned to the UK in November 2019 and was arrested. 

According to the prosecution, key allegations about the death of Mr O’Connell were made on October 8, 2019, when a man who was “frequently taken advantage of” by younger people in the community volunteered key information.

On the night of the incident, the man was awoken by a loud banging. He found Shahnavaz Azad and two others at his door. 

Azad produced a samurai sword and a machete and told the man to wash them in bleach, the court heard.

After he cleaned them, he had been told to put the weapons in bin bags and destroy them along with two sets of clothes, the court was told.

The court was told Azad had told the man to throw the knives in the stream and burn the clothes. Instead of throwing the blades away, however, the man had stashed in the long grass at the park he had been taken to. 

Two weeks later, he had recovered the weapons and told police about what he had been told to do, the court heard.

The jury was shown both the samurai sword and machete the prosecution alleges were handed to the man.

This concluded the prosecution’s opening and statements from defence counsels for all the men charged followed next. 

The defence counsel for Aamir Mustafa said he accepted he was driving the Vauxhall Astra on the night of the incident. 

He also accepted he was in a collision with the Golf, which led to “panic”. 

However, he “did not attack anybody”, his defence counsel said.  

Shahnavaz Azad’s defence counsel laid the blame at the door of Ryan Higgins. 

Speaking of Higgins, the defence said: “We say that he wasn’t the pursued, he was the pursuer in that car chase.”

He claimed Ryan Higgins attacked Azad with the samurai sword but the defendant disarmed him. 

It was also said Mr O’Connell had a knife and was attacking Azad, and following a swing from the former, the latter thrust out at him and landed a blow. 

“Azad was reasonably and lawfully defending himself in the agony of the moment”, the barrister added. 

Haroon Azad’s defence counsel said he was not present at the scene of the fight at all. 

It was his birthday on Saturday, August 31, and he had been drinking with the other defendants earlier in the evening. 

He was taken home by the others prior to the incident, his defence lawyer claimed, and had “no knowledge of what was going to transpire later that morning”.

Explaining how his fingerprints were on the samurai sword sheath, the barrister said he had grasped the weapon when he was attacked by Ryan Higgins the day prior to the incident. 

Umar Sarfraz has “never acted like a so-called animal”, his defence counsel said. 

“He was quite literally in the wrong place at the wrong time”, they continued, telling the jury Sarfraz had initially planned to go to McDonald’s on the night of the incident but instead got into his friend’s Corsa.

“He had no intention of getting into any fight - all he wanted was a lift home.” 

 Mohammed Shah accepted he was driving the Corsa Sarfraz was a passenger in, his barrister said. 

The defence counsel alleged the prosecution had “simply got it wrong” after he claimed CCTV footage showed the Corsa was actually chased by Ryan Higgins’ Golf. 

Hamza Azad was attacked by a “raging” and “aggressive” Ryan Higgins on the night of the altercation, defence counsel for Azad said. 

“All he did”, the barrister said, is “try to fend Ryan Higgins off with a wrench”.

The collisions between the cars was Mr Higgins’ fault, the lawyer added, telling the jury Azad is “not a violent man”.

Mohammed Hussnain’s presence in the Corsa was “nothing to do with any dispute”, his lawyer claimed. 

“He played no part in the violence that followed”, the defence counsel added. 

Finally, the defence acting for Raja Azad, who has been charged with perverting the course of justice after booking his son Haroon plane tickets to Pakistan, said: “He had no intention that the course of justice should be affected by what he did.

“He did not know the course of justice would be affected by what he did and he knew next to nothing of what had taken place.”

The trial continues at Reading Crown Court.