A 38-year-old bald "Star Wars" geek who called himself The Emperor formed a fight club on his Staten Island school bus - encouraging kids to descend into the dark side and beat their classmates, authorities said yesterday.
News of the mini Death Star on wheels, where middle school students were pummeled and their clothing was cut with scissors - instead of lightsabers - outraged parents.
"I put him on the bus in the morning and I'd like to know he's safe. It's disturbing," said the mother of an 11-year-old boy who was one of the Tottenville Intermediate School students to come forward and reveal the sick game.
"He was always worried he was going to get in a headlock or get pushed," the mom added. "He was a target. I'm appalled because I think I'm putting him in a safe place."
Bus driver Michael Cianci created The Death Cheese Club to keep order and gave the toughest of the middle school kids nicknames like Darth, Sith Warrior and Jabba, law enforcement sources said.
The stocky married father of two, who lives with his mother in Parlin, N.J., even posted bizarre rules in the yellow bus titled "Death Cheese Laws," which were read aloud each day, the sources said.
"The penalty for breaking this code is banishment," the laws proclaimed above the signature of "Lord Matt" - apparently The Emperor's second in command.
"In a ranking of Master or above, the penalty is death or severe beating . . . \[Heresy\] will not be tolerated."
The wanna-be storm troopers pounded on weaker kids, dished out noogies and even cut up one another's clothing with scissors.
All the while, Cianci quietly sat up front as though he had the kids in a sick Jedi mind trick, sources said.
"It makes me feel scared to ever take a bus," said eighth-grader Bianca Burrafato, 14.
From Nov. 1 to Jan. 17, police said, Cianci ruled over the Death Cheese, presumably named after the bus' yellow color, by allowing at least nine students to menace younger kids.
"He set up this club and crowned himself the emperor," a law enforcement source said. "He set up a pecking order for students based on fighting ability and wrestling ability."
On one horrible ride home, an 11-year-old boy was choked while other students cut up his jacket, police said.
The tormented boy, whose name is being withheld by the Daily News, asked Cianci for help, but the driver never reported the attack, sources said.
The boy later told his parents, who notified school administrators and police on Jan. 26. Another 11-year-old boy also came forward after his mom heard him discussing the "twisted game."
"We expect them as parents, as teachers and as community members to be safe," the mom said. "They were in an unsafe situation."
When cops found the rules on the bus and grilled Cianci, he admitted he knew about the roughhousing but insisted he didn't organize it, a police source said.
"I am outraged that this defendant would abuse his custodial authority," said Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan. "These students should not have been subject to some twisted game at the alleged whim of this driver."
At a brief court appearance, Cianci, sporting a goatee and a Yankees shirt, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child. He pleaded not guilty and posted $500 bail before leaving with his wife and brother-in-law.
His attorney vowed to fight the charges, which carry up to a year in jail. Cianci's 59-year-old mother also defended him.
"I know my son. He's a family man and he's a working slob, your basic average worker," she said. "He loves children and he would never let anyone hurt anyone on the bus.
School officials said Cianci, a Pioneer Transportation Co. driver who earns nearly $1,000 a week, has been suspended without pay.
The mother of the boy whose jacket was cut up said she even gave Cianci a Christmas tip because she was unaware of the violence. She had a warning for all bus drivers: "You're not there to be popular. . . . You're supposed to get them from point A to point B in a safe manner."